There are two types of learning: Just in case, and just in time.
When we are in school, whether that’s K12 or higher ed, we are usually learning “just in case.” Just in case you need calculus in the future, we’ll learn calculus. Just in case you need to know the rivers of China, we’ll memorize the rivers of China. Just in case you need to know that the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell, we’ll teach you that, too. Just in case.
On the other hand, you could learn things “just in time.” Just in time for my next freelance design gig, I’ll learn a new lettering technique that I’ll immediately use on the project. Just in time to create this program that I’m developing, I’ll learn how to use this API. Just in time to grow my business, I’ll learn about commercial real estate and renting office spaces.
With just-in-time learning, the knowledge that you gain is directly applicable to your goals. Your desire to learn comes out of necessity—you need X skill for Y project and must do Z to gain it. Just-in-time learning ensures that none of your learning goes to waste, since the reason that you started in the first place was because it was immediately useful to you. Even if you never have to know about commercial real estate for the rest of your life, you already got the value that you needed out of it.
On the contrary, with just-in-case learning, there are plenty of things you will learn and never use. You may have wasted countless hours on homework and studying for knowledge and skills that present you no value in the past, present, or future. That’s extraordinarily wasteful of both your time and energy.
Which type of learning are you doing more of right now? If you’re in school, more than likely you’re doing a lot of just-in-case learning that is questionably valuable to you. This isn’t to say that there isn’t a time and place for just in case—there surely is, and being curious in our own self-education will lead us to learn a lot of things that aren’t directly useful to our current situation yet will benefit us in the long run. That being said, our entire learning model can’t be based solely on learning just in case.
Yet that’s exactly what traditional schooling is all about.