Weekly Reflection: learning – just-in-time or just-in-case?

Our eduction system is built upon the idea of just in case learning. “You need to learn this just in case you need it in the future,” is the catch cry many students hear if the query the relevance of the lesson to their lives.

Sometimes I wonder if I’ve become part of system where I’m teaching things that might be irrelevant to students lives. This week  I’ve been re-learning how to factorise and simply equations, something I haven’t had much use for since I left school and would struggle to articulate a purpose for algebra to my students should the query me about the need to learn it in class.

Which perhaps explains the attraction that a lot of educators have for just-in-time learning. When you learn just-in-time, you’re highly motivated. There’s no need to imagine whether you might apply what you’re learning since the application came first. Moreover, there’s so much knowledge out there that out students aren’t going to need.

In 18 years of school you can’t learn every detail of every of New Zealand history, every reading strategy, every maths formula etc. before the kids join ‘the real world.’ There’s only remember so much arbitrary information one person can retain without a specific need for it. On top of that, technological knowledge has a short shelf life, for instance my generation of kids learned know to programme the VCR yet most of my students don’t know what a VCR is. So the argument goes that in fact it’s not worthwhile to learn too much that you’re not sure you have a need for.

Nevertheless, I still think there is a place for just in case learning.

Not everything can be learned just in time.  Tilly Smith managed to save 100 people during the 2004 boxing day tsunami thanks to a geography lesson. There is no way the teacher could have foreseen that Tilly would have needed to recognize the signs of a tsunami two weeks later. A broad education beyond strategies and information literacy was literally life saving in this case (though perhaps with the penetration of smartphones these days might have had people googling descriptions of the scene unfolding in front of them or been alerted to stay away from the beach by social media).

On the other hand, you need to know what’s available, even if you’re only going to learn the details just-in-time. You can’t say “I need to learn about floating versus fixed interest rates” if you don’t even know what interest is. You need to have a basic knowledge of the principles of algebra just in case. You can learn the name of the American president just in time.

But there’s a big gray area in between where it’s hard to know what is worthwhile to learn and when.

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