Monday, August 04, 2008

Learning as a journey

Apologies for those who will see this as a "well duh" post, but I was struck afresh by the analogy of learning as a journey this weekend.

On Sunday afternoon, my husband and I suddenly decided to head for the coast. I needed to feel the sand between my toes. I was born and raised within earshot of the sea and, until we left South Africa, lived at most half an hour's drive from the ocean. Since our arrival in the UK, we seem to have been moving further and further from the sounds, sights and smells that go together with coastal life. So, green or not, and in spite of the cost of fuel, off we set.

We had never previously visited the stretch of coastline that is closest to our current home, so we picked a coastal town that seemed reachable. John did the driving, and I did the navigating (whatever some people - severe language warning - may say on the subject, I am an excellent navigator).

I began to see the partnership as being analogous to that of student and teacher:

  • If we see John as the student, I was going along on his journey and had a vested interest in its success.
  • If I was in the role of teacher, I was the one telling him where to go and how to reach his objective, even though I had never been there before.
  • Because I had the map, I could have told him the entire route he needed to take when we set out, but he would simply have found this confusing. Instead, I would give him the information he needed just as he needed it: "Straight over here, and then left at the next exit onto the A14"
  • Maps are not infallible (neither are people) so there were one or two surprises along the way. We dealt with them as they arose.
  • We reached our destination together.
I got to feel the sand between my toes and stood with my feet in the (surprisingly warm) Atlantic... just as the rain came lashing down.

On the return journey, we switched places and I drove while John navigated a different route back. Long ago we realised that it was not good for our relationship for him to teach me anything. He gives information in the order in which he thinks it ought to be given. I get impatient, because I want it in a different order, and he gets impatient because I keep interrupting him with questions.

As we drove, he would tend to give me longer term instructions than I had given him: "Straight over here, then straight over the next two. Junction 21 could be complicated, but you need to go straight over it and keep going till we get to junction 9." When we passed junction 13 and it had a sign that pointed to our home town, he had wasn't following the map, so there was a period of uncertainty as I worried I might have missed the off-ramp, and he struggled to find our position on the map.

Now, I'm not trying to diss my husband here. I just think I might be the better teacher. He has other skills. But the difference in approach reminded me somewhat of the difference between just-in-case information and just-in-time learning.

Just in case tells you everything long before you're going to need it. Then when you do need it, you have to sift through your memory to find it again, by which time, the moment may have passed. Just in case also leaves you high and dry when the unexpected takes place. Just in case makes no allowance for the gap between head knowledge and practical application.

Just in time tells you what you need to know when you need to know it. Just in time keeps pace with you, so that the information you need is on hand when the unexpected happens. Just in time reflects what is happening now, so it directly addresses the practical application.

Of course, you could argue that both approaches worked equally well, since we arrived home without incident. I will say, though, that I found a way to convert the just in case to just in time. At each roundabout, I would ask "I assume I go straight over here?" John would answer the question and then follow it up with a long stream of additional information. I paid attention to the next 'to do' on the list and tuned the rest out so as not to muddy the waters of my understanding.

For me the interesting thing is that we were both working from the same map. I'm not sure how practical this is for people who work with a pre-established national curriculum and 'achievement' targets to meet. But in a corporate learning environment, the analogy follows more readily.


Anonymous said...

That brought me back to my teacher training days! Whoever would have thought of a drive to the seaside as an example of teaching techniques?

By the way - have you thought about satellite navigation? ;-)

Anonymous said...

@grandad We have a satnav, and I use it when I'm alone in the car (reading a map while driving is not conducive to safe arrival).

However, when there are two of us in the car, it's convivial to make it a team effort. I've witnessed many couples having vicious spats over which way to go, but we seem to have found a workable pattern.

Anonymous said...

Timely analogy. I put a GPS unit in my car this weekend. I am seriously "map challenged" so this new tool is perfect for me. My husband and I went to pick up my son at camp, a five hours drive. GPS saved me from sometimes comical/sometimes tense moments. My husband however, (an excellent navigator) questioned thet accuracy and value of the technology. It has the potential to harm his "lets try this way" explorations that have taken us to some interesting places. For instance, we turned down a side street when deep in the Adirondack Mountains of NY (which would not have been on the GPS map) and saw a whole different way of life. It was good for the kids to see people living without indoor plumbing.
So, different strokes for different folks I guess. My analogy might serve as a warning against using technology when it's not the most effective toll for an individual.

Anonymous said...

@janet See my reply to Grandad above. Recently, I drove alone to a railway station in nearby town. I sort of knew the way, but decided to play it safe with the satnav. Thank goodness. They were doing roadworks and the road I was directed down was blocked, so I had to do a detour. The great thing about the satnav is that it could tell me how to get back to where I wanted to go, using an alternative route. If I had been alone at that point, I would have panicked about finding the place again before my train was due to depart and it would have got my day off to a stressful start.