“Just in case” vs “just in time” learning

Listening to this interview with LifterLMS CEO Chris Badgett, I was reminded of a concept that I hadn’t heard in a while: the difference between “just in case” learning versus “just in time” learning.

The basic distinction is that most school is “just in case” learning: trigonometry might one day come in handy for a fraction of the population, so you learn it just in case. On the other hand, in the real world we spend a lot more time engaging in “just in time” learning: I need to use a new piece of software for work, so I’ll take a quick course on it. I’d never really heard the concept in the world of online course creation and e-learning, but it clearly applies.

In fact, the “just in time” concept comes up a lot in the alternative education space. My kids are homeschooled and, more than that, they mostly follow the path of “self-directed education” (with a few days a week going to self-selected classes, sports, dance, and more).

Commonly referred to as unschooling (a term I personally hate), self-directed education is the process of allowing kids to learn what they want, when they want. It’s about supporting the natural curiosity that kids have, and combining that with a lot more freedom and a lot less pressure and anxiety. Self-directed kids don’t often do a lot of intentional “just in case” learning, but find themselves doing a lot of “just in time” learning when they have a goal that they want to see through.

The biggest argument against a “just in time” learning approach claims that kids should be exposed to as much variety as they can: they should experience math, science, art, and so on. And believe me, they do. They just aren’t really tested on it, at least not with a multiple choice test. Which means they actually kind of like it. They like learning math when it’s counting the money they earned at an entrepreneur fair. And they tend to remember it, too.

Because that’s the main problem with “just in case” learning- you often forget what you learned by the time you actually need it. If you don’t believe me, pull out a high school trigonometry textbook and see how well you do. And if you struggle, there’s probably a decent online course or YouTube video that you can watch “just in time.”

So I’m actually a fan of public education, and I do think we naturally engage in a lot of “just in case” learning as well, but I sure wish schools could give kids a little more freedom in what they learn and how they learn. Like the world that we adults all actually live in.

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