What’s the Best Way to Learn? Just-In-Time versus Just-In-Case


Illustration of an 18th-century classroom

You will never be dumber than you are right now. You will also never have more time than you do right now. Thus, you have a relative abundance of time and a relative dearth of knowledge. How do we strike a balance between these resources to optimally leverage them for learning?

These questions came up as I listened to two episodes of the Ruby Rogues podcast. In episode 70 David brings up just-in-time versus just-in-case learning. David’s ideas were prompted by Katrina Owen, who has a list of learning resources here. The other thought-provoking episode (responsible for the above paragraph) was number 87 in which the rogues discusses Sandi Metz’s new book, Practical Object-Oriented Design in Ruby. (I had the pleasure of meeting Sandi last night at a local Ruby meetup, after a draft of this post was written.) Here’s Chuck riffing off of a quote from the book:

“Practical design does not anticipate what will happen to your application. It merely accepts that something will and that in the present, you cannot know what. It doesn’t guess the future. It preserves your options for accommodating the future.” And so, what that says to me is you don’t always have enough information. You may never have enough information. You will never have less information than you have now. So make the design decisions that you feel like you have to and defer the rest, until you don’t have to anymore. And so it was basically, “Here are some rules. But use your best judgment because you’re going to get more information that’s going to inform you better later.” And so, that kind of opens things up. Here are the rules but if you have the information that says that you have to break them, then break them.

The just-in-time and just-in-case distinctions are useful in answering the question I posed at the beginning. But before I give concrete examples I think it is important to introduce another dimension to our learning classification: formal and informal. Being the good social scientists that we are, we can now formulate a two-by-two table.

LearningStylesJust-in-case learning is done well ahead of the time that it is needed for practical purposes. Children learn English (or whatever their native language) without thought for or anticipation of the letters, emails, and blog posts they will write in years to come. In a formal setting this can lead to the use of toy problems to make the skill seem practical. Students in an algebra class may have trouble seeing ‘the point’ of those skills until much later–and even then they may not fully recognize where that learning originated.

Just-in-time learning occurs at or very near the point of need. I could ask for travel directions to your house when we first meet, but that would be useless until you actually invite me (not to mention presumptuous). It is better to learn something like that when I can use it right away, since it has little value in the abstract. Programming–for me at least–has been much more of a just-in-time skill. I have taken one formal course in the topic and am currently enrolled in another. But the great benefit of these courses is that you get to put your skills to work immediately.

To answer the question we started with, I think that we need to place more value on just-in-time learning and less on just-in-case learning. As the quote from Sandi’s book points out, we live in a world of uncertainty. There are some skills that you simply cannot learn at a just-in-time pace (math being the main one that comes to mind). But for the plethora of other cases that our modern world and its tools make available, learning at the point of need is satisfactory and perhaps even superior. That is why we need to develop more avenues for just-in-time learning. Programmers have this in spades with sites like StackOverflow, but many other skill areas do not. Sites like Coursera also have a chance to provide a middle road between the categories in the table above. The ability to iterate quickly and pick up new skills on the fly will be increasingly valuable in the years to come.

Nature and Politics

In the last post I discussed how nature has come to be regarded as a synonym for good, and suggested that that has not always been the case. Indeed, I am indebted to William Cronon for making the same point much better.* Allow me to quote from him before I move on to the main point of this post:

But the most troubling cultural baggage that accompanies the celebration of wilderness has less to do with remote rain forests and peoples than with the ways we think about ourselves—we American environmentalists who quite rightly worry about the future of the earth and the threats we pose to the natural world. Idealizing a distant wilderness too often means not idealizing the environment in which we actually live, the landscape that for better or worse we call home….

Indeed, my principal objection to wilderness is that it may teach us to be dismissive or even contemptuous of such humble places and experiences. Without our quite realizing it, wilderness tends to privilege some parts of nature at the expense of others.

The trouble that Cronon mentions–figuring out where to focus our definition of nature–at first seems tangential to politics, until we remember that several of the first great modern political philosophers were greatly concerned with answering the question, “What is the state of nature?”

Frontispiece to Rousseau's "Discourses"

The answer that one gives to that question is extremely consequential to everything that follows in his argument about how to best structure a society.
For Thomas Hobbes, famously, life in the state of nature was “nasty, poor, brutish and short.” Thus, anyone powerful enough to protect men from such a miserable life and quick, violent death could be regarded as a legitimate ruler. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, on the other hand, regarded nature as a land of peace and plenty. His idea for society, then, was that it should be as unrestrictive (“natural”) as possible, with some accommodations made to induce social cooperation.**

In this day and age, we have the ability to learn more about how nature does things and design our shoes and supermarkets accordingly. Can the same be done for human nature and society? Indeed, psychology and many of the social sciences are already attempting to answer this question. But they are doing so in ways that we would consider outmoded in other areas: we are at the point of making clogs, not barefoot running shoes; we talk with you about the social equivalent of a hydroponic system, but not organic vegetables. Getting there will be the next great challenge for the social sciences, and in my view it is going to require a paradigm shift away from unsatisfactory models that rest on excessively artificial assumptions. Nevertheless our new approaches, whatever they may eventually become, will still be simplifications of reality. Let’s not confuse them with an overly simplistic definition of nature that is exclusively good or bad. We live in a complex world, and that is enough.


*And to Eric Higgins, for encouraging me to explore Cronon’s work as part of our teaching/facilitating of the spring 2011 ENGL 1304 course at the University of Houston.

**Apologies to the great thinkers of ages past for doing such violence to their philosophies by summarizing them so briefly.

Nature and Engineering

Many people today have the idea that “natural” is synonymous with “better.” It is this idea that I want to call into question in the current post, and perhaps restate in a more agreeable (to me) way in the next post.

Let’s use two convenient examples, which most readers will be familiar with to varying degrees: exercise and eating. Today I got my new “barefoot” running  shoes, after much deliberation, followed by a brief spurt of impatience between placing the order and their arrival (for such is the capriciousness of the human condition). As I was trying them out it would have been very easy to have self-congratulatory thoughts of how much better it was for my body and soul to be running in a more natural way, except for a couple of snags. First and most obviously, these are shoes. While they do allow my muscles to move in a more natural (in the sense, now, of unrestricted) way, if my utmost priority was being “natural” I would not wear shoes at all.* Now you could argue that I was forced into this because of the fact that I was running on pavement, and you would be right. But I was running on a special trail designed for runners and bikers, and I regard this combination of special shoes and special pavement as vastly superior to running barefoot through the woods. Furthermore, I was listening to my iPod the entire time.

The point I am making is that nature is not an unencumbered good. The true essence of nature is making trade-offs between varying levels of good and bad, and how one defines good or bad depends on the circumstances. As an example of the latter idea point, consider if our goal was to grow food. I would much rather have dirt in which to grow food rather than to try growing it on the special pavement of the running trail. In this case, dirt is better than pavement. It is also true that bare dirt is better than forest, but a hydroponic system may be better than both. What I regard as good depends on my goals; what I regard as bad depends on the problem I am trying to solve.

The problem that you are trying to solve changes as your capabilities of solving problems changes, which brings us to our second example. For many in the developing world, the problem that food solves is a lack of calories. In America today, often the problem is too many or the wrong kind of calories. We can be more selective about the calories we choose, picking fruits and vegetables that are healthier than cheeseburgers and milkshakes. But if the problem is one of taste, the latter options could be regarded as superior and if the problem is one of lacking calories they almost certainly are better.** Organic vegetables are in a sense more natural than those treated with synthetic pesticides, but this is undermined by the fact that they are transported to a very convenient grocery store–picking them out of the fields myself, which would be more natural,*** would also significantly reduce my desire for them.

Taking these two examples together, the final idea of this post is that we have greater capability now than ever before to choose between the aspects of nature that we regard as good/desirable and those that we designate bad/undesirable. As usual, the issue that I am taking here is not with the behavior but with the mindset. Wear your barefoot running shoes and eat your organic vegetables, but don’t be swayed into thinking that it is the most natural outcome. Natural is not always better.


*Indeed I have known individuals who go to this logical extreme, but I do not regard extreme logic as to anyone’s credit except in extreme circumstances.

** It seems plausible to me that one reason we regard fruits and vegetables so highly today is that a) we have access to a greater variety of them than at any time in history and b) we have a greater number of tasty ways to prepare them. These initially resulted, for Europeans, from conquering colonies in the Americas and developing a spice trade with the far east. An Irish family feasting on boiled potatoes with salt and pepper would seem horrendously monotonous to us today, but was remarkably novel in the context of the 18th century.

*** But not the most extreme form of nature, since agriculture itself is a human development, and could in that sense be regarded as synthetic.