Rebirth of Reason


Goal-Directed Learning
by Joseph Rowlands

In the engineering world, it is common for people to say that they learned more in the first few months of a new job than they did in years of college. We could quibble about whether they would be in a position to learn as much as they do if they didn't have years of schooling behind them, but there's an important insight here that is widely shared.


In school, you are exposed to a lot of ideas, but frequently with little understanding of the connection between those ideas and what you'll end up doing in a real job. And that assumes that the classes are even relevant to your career. When you do learn, you learn enough to pass a test or complete your homework. While you may study hard and understand it enough to be able to satisfy these requirements, often the knowledge fades or disappears after the semester ends.


Why is work so much better? Obviously one significant part is that what you are learning is always relevant to your job, since it is your job. You aren't distracted by trying to learn other topics, or trying to understand why the knowledge will be useful. Some schools do a better job of equipping their students with real-world knowledge, but some keep the knowledge abstract and theoretical. The connection to application is unclear at best.


What I think is an even more important reason for why learning at work is so efficient is that the learning is performed as a means to accomplishing some greater task. This is goal-directed learning, and it is more powerful than the rote memorization or studying topics in isolation from practice.


One of the benefits of goal-directed learning is that the knowledge you gain is always put into a wider context. One of the problems with school learning is that it is difficult to integrate the ideas. You're exposed to many different ideas, but there is no firm foundation to build off of and to integrate with. Each of the ideas can be understood in isolation, but all of the connections aren't seen. And I think that's why school learning fades so quickly. While you may understand a topic, if you don't integrate it well, you don't have all of the ideas mutually reinforcing each other.


When I talk to a colleague, we sometimes discuss previous projects or technical problems or solutions. Sometimes people are surprised that I can remember so many details. If it were just memorization of details, I would have no chance at remembering much. But when I work on a complex project, all of the different design points work together to solve the overall problem. I don't have to remember one important point because I vaguely remember 5 other things that were connected to it and make it necessary.


This is a huge benefit of integration. Isolated information can't be retained as well. Each piece of information needs to be retained on its own. If you start to forget how it worked, that information is probably gone for good. But if the information is integrated, you have many, many cues or hints that can remind you. And you may not even need to remember. You may be able to work out how it behaved based on what you know about the rest of it.


Learning at school just can't compare in terms of the level of integration you can get when you focus on a topic like at work. Schools tend to try to provide you as much information as they can, when it's far more important to learn the information is a well-structured way.


Another advantage of the goal-directed learning is that it lends itself to integration. The fact that you are trying to accomplish an end goal means you can't afford to keep all of the knowledge in an isolated form. You have to see the connections. If you're working on a digital circuit design, you have to not only understand each piece, but various ways you can put it all together. By doing that, you start to see how some techniques work well with others, or are better than others in some situations.


Putting ideas into practice requires you to sharpen your understanding. You might get away with having only a vague idea of how something works in school. Maybe you know enough to solve the math problem given to you. But when you actually need to use it in real life, it needs to be much clearer. Things that might not be a problem in school can make you unable to perform in real life.


Goal-directed learning also helps you recognize that knowledge is hierarchical. Some ideas are far more critical. Some ideas provide more information, but might not be necessary. Having a purpose allows you to evaluate the usefulness of your knowledge, and identify what information or understanding needs to come first. It may be more important to spend extra time working on a very basic idea you already understand pretty well then it is to spend time on a topic that confuses you. It depends on the relative importance of the ideas.


Learning at work is also good because you benefit from the wisdom and understanding of others that have already done the work. You don't have to try to figure out what information is more important than other information, because there are people who have been through it and you can learn from them. They can help you to find connections between ideas, so you can better integrate. They've done a bunch of the heavy lifting already, and you can benefit from that.


I'll offer a final reason why learning at work is efficient. In school, you have to learn at a rate set by your teacher or the rest of the class. However well you mastered a subject, when it's time to move on, you have to move on. In work, you have more flexibility in how you learn. You have to accomplish your tasks, of course. But you can spend your time learning those things that you really need to understand better, and you can keep focusing on it until you get it right.


The benefits of goal-directed learning are enormous and varied. Some schools do an excellent job teaching with this method. They have complex, long-term projects that require the student to master the necessary skills and put it all together. Other schools tend to focus on tests, homework, and even lab work (often small tasks that attempt to apply certain ideas). Lab work is often not very useful, in my experience. They are too small-scale. To get the benefits of integration, you need a bigger project that connect more ideas, and requires you to go deep into the details to accomplish it. A big project can become the foundation for more learning and more integration. Too small a project doesn't have these benefits.


This goal-directed learning could be expanded to different areas. Whatever topic a person learns, I think this would be much more effective and long-lasting. But the goal has to be appropriate. In a way, all learning is goal-directed, since you have the goal of learning. But I'm not talking about that. I'm talking about something real and significant that you need to work towards. Only then can you have the benefits described here.

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