Just in time learning and supervision

Several times on this site, I asserted that in many cases, people can learn skills quickly just when needed instead of taking formal training or having a formal college education. Many tasks have discussion or descriptions on the Internet, and often with multiple sources to check against. A person can search for what needs to be learned and then learn that specific thing in time for the task at hand.

Part of the need for classroom and semester based learning was that the information was only available in a classroom setting. There would be textbooks, but the textbooks were not efficient. The class required an instructor who needed time to prepare for a class, and the class required assignments that needed time to complete, and finally there needed to be quizzed and exams to confirm the knowledge. For most individual students, this process is inefficient because he will only ever use a small fraction of what he learned. The process pays off at a larger scale in the example where he would be prepared to transfer knowledge that perhaps some later person may find useful.

With current information technologies, skill training has become much more efficient. The student becomes a student the moment when he receives a task he does not know how to perform. A search would often return many alternatives that can be used to refine the knowledge or cross check. The content would be available in video and interactive lab forms that will allow the student to learn at his own pace. These tools would have some type of feedback to tell him if it was right. For example, a video may tell the student how to perform something for himself and then show what the final result should look like for a particular example.

I have personally taken advantage of this approach for most of my career. Even in those jobs immediately following my bachelor’s and my master’s degrees, my first tasks had little to do with the coursework I received in college. In some cases, there were some specialized training but they were not that useful to solve the particular problem I faced. I had to find the answer on my own.

When I finally got comfortable using Internet searches sometime in the midpoint of my career, I started to get very productive. I was able to find things that were very close to what I was trying to do. I was then able to make the appropriate adjustments to use it in my own work that successfully satisfied the requirement.

As time went on, I was asked to help guide others to follow my approach. Even though I explained each and every step of the process, I was disappointed to see that they could not replicate the ability to tackle a new problem. Reviewing their work, I can tell they did everything I told them to do, and yet I had to intervene to complete the effort. I could not figure out what I left out of the instruction, but clearly there was something missing.

In my recent posts, I talked about the importance of learning from masters. That learning involves much more than memorizing procedures or cookbooks. The student learns by watching the master tackle a problem. Through careful observation of the master, or the master’s careful supervision of the student’s work, the student what the master cannot explain. Tasks are broken into two parts where most of the time is applying knowledge and skill but there are moments when attention to the specific task heightens out of concern for the potential getting it wrong. The student needs to learn where to pay attention, and to think beyond the routine procedures.

There are points in the process where there is a need to check if things still make sense. At these points, there is a need to challenge one’s confidence. There are times when the master loses confidence in his confidence. He needs additional information to confirm his confidence. The work needs to be checked to be sure that everything makes sense for the current situation that may be far from the final goal.

This is a different kind of confidence. It is the confidence that the current situation is appropriate to question one’s confidence. At that time, it is necessary to find a way to confirm that everything at the moment is the way it should at this part of the process.

I do not think it is possible to learn this type of confidence to be unconfident. It takes experience. When the experience is guided by a mentor, the experience is likely to be accompanied by successful completion. Without a mentor, there will be more failures. The failures may be costly, but the experience is valuable. The experience tells the student where to be more careful next time.

In the earlier post about grading, there was a video that proclaimed that grades should be replaced with a collaborative learning environment where the content is specifically related to the child’s experience and the student chooses the topic to study. This kind of learning does not answer the above need to learn how to confront the uncomfortable situations where you need to challenge your confidence.

Collaboration is not a substitute from mentorship even if the mentor is a member of the collaboration. There is a need to develop each individual to rise to his individual responsibility at key points where uncertainty must be addressed. Collaboration avoids this kind of confrontation and when things do fail the responsibility is diluted. No one sees themselves as needing to be better individually. If there is a lesson at the collaborative level, it would be that there is need for the team to supervise itself.

If collaborative supervision is possible, it is very different from self supervision. It is also very different in terms of effectiveness. I have seen teams improve when a new member arrives who is self supervising.

Self supervision is learned through guided experience. That guidance may be explicit from a mentor, or implicit where the mentor is the accumulation of mistakes.

I suspect the problem I had when trying to train others is that I presumed that they had a similar level of self-supervision that I had. Lacking that trait, the instructions were incomplete even though they didn’t leave anything out. Tasks require acute supervision at certain points. If the worker cannot supervise himself at that point, then he needs someone else to do it. That is what I learned where I had to intervene as supervisor at a key point to get the task completion.

This would be a task I could have done by myself, but one I wanted someone else to be able to do by himself.

There were times when someone would ask how I would solve a problem. That problem was one that I had not encountered before, but I immediately recognized that it should be easy to solve with a quick search on Internet. My response was to search for the answer. He would either not find the exact answer, or he would find something close but then try to follow it precisely. The point of the search is to learn from other examples and then apply that learning to the present problem. The answer rarely is a copy from someone else’s work.

Supervision is a harsh word, at least in my mind. I do not want anyone to think I need to be supervised. The word comes with a meaning that the person not only cannot complete the task on his own, but he will never be able to complete the task on his own no matter how many times he repeats it. I am using the concept here in a teaching sense. The expectation is that the supervision will result in lasting learning. There are times when such supervision is necessary.

One of the descriptions of formal education is that it teaches students how to learn. The ultimate goal is for the student to learn from himself. This is explicit in the case of a doctorate’s degree that requires original research. The dissertation presents knowledge that was not known before. Learning how to learn is similar to learning how to self-supervise. There are times when the person have to admit that you are in uncharted territory and he needs to slow down and really challenge his confidence. The person needs to be able to recognize when those times come up.

This video describes a scenario that motivated this post. This was an airline incident where a flight had to perform an emergency landing because both engines were having problems. On the ground, the investigators discovered that the cause was a series of mistakes in applying a biocide to the fuel. The process started with a finding that there was a microbial contamination in the fuel system where the solution was to apply a biocide. This was a task that the engineers were expected to be able to perform on their own even though they had not done so before. They proceeded to perform the task but found that the documentation was not clear as to how to perform the calculation or how to apply the biocide. They ended up miscalculating in a way that overdosed the fuel. They also did not premix. Instead they applied the biocide directly to the tank. The biocide is denser than the fuel so it settled to the bottom where the fuel intake values were and this ultimately led to gumming up a valve making it less useable in flight.

The accident report is forgiving to the engineers. They were expected to be able to do this themselves, but the report concedes that this particular exercise required computational skills they did not have. As with these accident reports, the emphasis is on recommendations to prevent this from occurring again. The video is more critical toward the engineers, but even it is forgiving toward them. The video’s primary condemnation is on using an Internet search for this task.

I have a different reaction to the episode. I understand that the maintenance engineers were appropriately trained for their job duties as whole. The investigators found that many their peers would have made the same mistake, and in fact one actually did. I am too remote from the industry and from this case in particular to have anything constructive to say.

My observation is that there seems to be something more fundamental lacking in the engineer’s preparedness for their job. Despite finding a lack of key information in the published instructions on either the biocide or the maintenance manual, they were not deterred in their confidence that this should be a simple task. They were convinced the task was simple, and the circumstances did nothing to undermine that confidence.

The missing element in this scenario was self-supervision. As I described above, a supervisor is needed only at specific points in a job. Most of the day, the work does not require direct active supervision. Instead, there are specific times when the supervisor needs to intervene with a demand to think carefully and to choose wisely.

The analogy that pops into mind is my very first job that was in a factory where I worked with power saws. After weeks of using the table saw, they assigned me to the radial saw. After they taught and tested me on the basics, I worked alone on that saw for a while. When a new batch arrived with a different specification, the supervisor suddenly appeared hovering behind me. As recall, he did not say anything. He did not have to. The message was clear, this task required me to think hard about what I was about to. In that case, I think I figured out on my own what made this task different, but that does not discount the role of the supervisor.

The supervisor’s role is to tell the worker that now is the time to think carefully about what you are about to do. The task is not as simple as first thought or as simple as the worker wished it would be. The task is doable, but it is going to take some thinking. Even though in hindsight that factor job seemed to be a mindless job, it actually required moments of intense thinking and mindfulness. At stake was the safety of myself and others. Also at stake was the loss of time and material if I did it wrong. Once I figured out the right way to do it, I could then turn my mind off to the simple task of repeating the operation.

A valuable goal for education is to teach students how to be their own supervisors. Individual grading and testing with content the student cannot control provides the necessary stakes to develop an ability to supervise oneself. Even in scenarios where the work is collaborative and it is agreeable to the worker, the worker still need to supervise himself for his own contributions. In a collaborative environment, he may not hesitate to ask for help, but he also need to know when to suspect that the help received is not sufficient. Education needs to train people to doubt their confidence, or even the confidence of their team. Education needs to train people to have confidence to slow down or alter procedures when things are not satisfactorily explained.

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