Observations about learning and implications about working

Today’s post is on my thoughts following the reading of this Wired article.   I am responding to the basic message of the article that claims that learning is best done by staggering multiple learning activities each done in short intervals at a time.   The claim is that the usual approach is to master one skill at a time before moving on to the next skill.  In this alternative approach a skill may require repeated attempts at learning where those attempts are spaced far enough apart that there is an opportunity to forget the previous lesson.  The suggested strength of learning is in re-learning something.  Even when something is not readily recalled, re-learning reminds us that we had already learned it before and this recollection reinforces the learning in a way that is not possible with the uninterrupted approach of intense learning until you master something.

I concede that perhaps different people do have different approaches for learning.  Many people may best served by a learning approach that focuses on mastery one topic at a time.  I can only speak for myself in that I don’t learn well with that approach, or at least I feel unsatisfied with my learning when I am asked to learn something once in a intensive way with the expectation that I’ll never have to relearn it.

The model of that kind of learning occurred in college courses where a particular course would focus on a topic and end with an exam or paper to demonstrate mastery of material.  After the course is complete, I get credit for the course and I no longer need to learn it.

My education was in a technical field and there were some courses that followed a track where later courses had a prerequisite of earlier courses.  Sometimes these later courses explicitly exercised these earlier skills.  When that happened, I felt more satisfied about my learning of the earlier material.

I recall even at that age making the observation that the best way to learn algebra is to apply it to the study of calculus.   Much of calculus training is actually applied algebra.  At the end of the track of calculus courses, I felt much more confident in my algebra skills than in calculus skills.  I would feel better about calculus when I applied it to other courses when there was an opportunity to apply it to a specific problem.

The nature of college courses is that there is a substantial gap of time between the final exam of a prerequisite course and the next time that the skill is needed.  Although the assumption is that there is no need to re-learn it, I frequently felt the need to consult the earlier text books to refresh my memory.  For this reason, I usually bought used text books but I retained them after the course was complete.   At the end of my college years, I had quite a collection of books that I vowed to take with me in my subsequent jobs.  The greatest bulk and weight of moving boxes was devoted to moving books.  I intended to keep relearning what I had already earned credit.

I learn best by revisiting something over and over again rather than by immersing myself into something to learn quickly and thoroughly before moving on to the next topic.  I never really thought of it much as being unusual.  I just took it for granted that is the best way to learn for me.  It is certainly the more satisfying way to learn.  When I refreshed myself of earlier learning, I’ve always felt I learned something more that I’m sure I missed earlier.

I want to also describe the non-work example of my attempts at learning piano.   I gave up having a piano instructor because of the demand for repeatedly practicing certain skills until they are mastered.   I recognize that this is a time-honored approach for training pianists.  It also makes sense from the instructor’s point of view to be prepared for each instruction session.  Just like the earlier college examples, I was too impatient and lazy to follow this approach.   Also like the academics, I have lackluster progress to show for my obstinancy.   Maybe I would be a much better pianist now if I had followed the more rote instruction.   I’m sure I could be better at playing specific pieces.   However, I chose to take a longer approach of learning multiple pieces and then setting them aside to learn new pieces.   When I do return to earlier pieces, I recognize that my current attempts are not as good as my earlier ones, but I eventually do recover the and go beyond the earlier skill.    I like to think that my exercise on the other unrelated pieces plus the time to allow the earlier piece to be partially forgotten did in fact allow me to make progress I might not otherwise have made.   This experience of making progress in learning is satisfying even if I still can’t make a good performance of that earlier piece.

The topic so far has focused on the preparatory learning of a skill.   The original article addresses the learning project as we encounter it in training or education.   There is an alternative approach to learning topics in a widely staggered approach that at least for some people may be helpful.   I don’t think learning stops when a skill is attained.   I believe learning continues in the practice of previously learned skills.    This is my point of the prerequisite course where the latter course actively demands the exercise of the previous learned skill.   Although a student may already have credit for an earlier course in rhetoric or algebra, he really learns that skill in the later course.   I think the same thing occurs in the workplace.

In the STEM fields, the notion of lifelong learning is often presented as a need to learn new skills to replace older and obsolete ones.   The continuous learning focus on a topic that is not related to the current job but instead may be relevant for a future job.   This is certainly a necessity to remain relevant in the STEM job market.

However, I believe there is also a lifelong learning project of practicing what you already know.   I often visualize the job as a performance that uses skills.   We sometimes call the exercise of skills as a practice even though the expectation is that the skill is already learned.   An expert doesn’t need any further training to exercise his skill through practice, we just call this exercise of skill a practice.   However, I think even the expert exercising his skills is still learning.   No two performances are perfectly alike and there is some variation that could have been handled better or could indicate an area that requires more preparation for future performances.   A skill practice does involve real practicing and learning.

Recognizing that work is a lifelong learning process, the same lessons about learning could apply to working.

Just like the initially linked article suggesting we are doing learning wrong, I wonder if we are approaching working wrong.  The notion of a duty hour being filled with a precise list of preexisting skills is similar to the industrial engineering recommendations of more than a century ago.   Those studies found industrial efficiency in an assembly line approach where people are assigned very specific tasks requiring a limited number of previously trained skills to be repeated indefinitely.   It appears that this model is the standard for most types of modern work.    Certainly for new hires, a particular job requires prior qualification of the skill that the job requires to be exercised during the normal duty hours.

For knowledge workers and in the STEM fields in particular, the imagery of the industrial factory floor is replaced by office work involve substantial amounts of work at computers or attending meetings.   The work lacks the repetitive drudgery of the factory floor and instead often offers an environment for interactions in discussing problems.   However, there remains a similarity in that the jobs have constraints of what an individual is responsible for an what he is allowed to perform.   Sometimes departmental boundaries impose barriers where different departments have different to focus on different missions even though the work is similar.    Sometimes the skills or certifications constrain what an individual can participate in within a department.

As an engineer who once aspired to enter industrial engineering or its counterpart in systems engineering, I recognize the efficiency of designing business processes that treat people as skill-delivery units.   Such models optimize resource allocation by assuring the right skills are available at the right times in the right quantities.

Efficient operation of a business does not mean optimal operation and development of humans.

One consequence of the narrow scope jobs is the general decline of senior level positions or people whose job is to provide leadership and mentoring independent of personnel or business management.   In the past there were more senior staff positions for people to oversee the work and offer advice or guidance to handle the difficulties that occur outside of the narrow job issues.   For example, the senior level person may suggest a strategy for overcoming some problem between different teams based on his experience working through similar problems in the past.   The decline of such senior positions may be explained by the goal for efficiency: the actual work is done by the more junior positions who should be expected to resolve the problems on their own so that senior guidance is an unnecessary cost.  I think the decline is also because we no longer develop that kind of senior talent in the first place.  In STEM jobs in particular, older workers frequently directly compete with younger workers for the same assignments.

The post started with the observation that we learn better when we learn in staggered sequences returning to a partially learned after a time when the learning may be partially forgotten.    Returning to this lesson in this fashion results in a more robust learning.    However, as I hinted with my own experience, this approach to learning is also slower for any particular skill.    This slowness may be offset by staggering the learning of multiple and disparate skills so that eventually the entire set of of skills becomes learned.   Perhaps the time it take to learn seven or eight skills works out to be similar in the two learning scenarios (although I suspect learning each one at a time will still be faster).

The argument for the staggered learning approach is that the learning is of a higher quality of learning: we learn it better than the intensive approach.   I do not know if this is true.   From my own experience, I feel more satisfied with my learning when I stagger it with learning multiple unrelated skills over the same period.  I assume that satisfaction is coming from earned confidence that I do know the material better.

If the staggered learning approach is more compatible with the nature of human intelligence, than a similar strategy may be beneficial in organizing work assignments into scattered practice of multiple skills.   This is contrary to the notion of efficiency optimization to exploit existing skills for current needs, but it may pay off later with a more confident and competent senior practitioner who can provide advisory roles or become more accountable because they have a deeper understanding and appreciation all of the skills better or know the underlying challenges of the skills that may be applicable to whatever replaces the older skills.

In either case of learning or working, it may just be a personal benefit of better satisfaction of deeper learning of a skill or knowledge.   That satisfaction may not have any economic benefit except for better satisfying the worker.  Even if that were the case, it is interesting to observe the difference between the highly efficient and restricted skill learning from intense training and the more satisfying and deeper learning from staggered learning.  The latter may be more compatible with the human spirit.

Note: 8/22/2014 I re-edited previously published version to strip out excess material better suited for a separate post.

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