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Motivated to learn?


Think of a time when you wanted to learn something because there was something you needed to do. It could be as simple as figuring out how to transfer a call on your new (and insanely complex) phone system at work, because your boss' wife somehow ended up at your extension and you SO don't want to hang up on her. Or it could be that you just realized that you're really tired of copy-and-pasting your contact info onto every one of your web pages, so you need to figure out how to dynamically include a snippet of HTML in every one of your JSP pages.

Now think back to most of what you learned in high school. How much biology do you remember? I mean, really remember? (Assuming you aren't a medical student or biologist today.) I am 100% certain that I'd fail some of the exams I took when I was 16... including some of the ones I aced at the time.

OK, so that was a pretty long time ago, and no matter how well you learned something, there's a little bit of a use-it-or-lose-it for a lot of topics. You might still have it all in your brain, but the mechanism for recalling it is too rusty to be useful.

But think about something more recent. Think about the last technical topic you learned from either a class or a book. How much of the details do you remember? The answer probably depends a lot on whether you knew that you needed to be able to do that particular thing you were learning. And that's huge. Because if even at a high level you know you need to learn PHP, if the parts your studying don't seem directly related to what you know you want to do, the learning will be weak.

And that's the problem with a huge chunk of learning today, from schools to colleges to corporate/IT training to books:

Just-in-case learning sucks compared to just-in-time learning.

That doesn't mean there aren't a lot of problems with just-in-time learning, too... usually just-in-time learning is also just-what-you-need to survive the current problem, and you might not even understand why the thing you're doing works. But there's a hybrid solution that we try (not always successfully) to do sometimes in our books or in the classroom, and it's this:

Give a compelling, personally motivating reason/benefit for the thing you're teaching, before you teach it!

In other words, try to make just-in-case learning feel more like just-in-time learning. In our Head First books, for example, you'll see a lot of things like, "Imagine you've just finished working on this project when suddenly the spec changes, and your boss says..." We try to give scenarios up-front, that at least provide a tiny bit of just-in-time motivation. That feeling of, "OK, I really need to be able to do this, so I need to figure out how..." vs. "I'm sure this is relevant or it probably wouldn't be in the book, but it's not something my brain needs to pay attention to right now..."

We try to get our authors and teachers to really work on this, but it's not always. I've had learners in a Java class who had no idea if they would ever actually use Java in the real world. So I try to help them imagine what they might want to do, and I try to come up with things that might be inherently motivating, to make it more like a game. Almost anything can be made interesting and even compelling if the book/teacher doesn't suck the life and joy out of it by making it boring, academic, or too comprehensive and difficult (like when the book tries to be both a learning and reference book, so it covers absolutely everything about any given topic, including the stuff that even the author can't imagine actually using in the real world...)

I think I gave a few tips on doing this in a much earlier post on Show-dont-tell applied to learning.

A good goal: figure out ways to make just-in-case learning feel almost as motivating as just-in-time learning.

Posted by Kathy on March 23, 2005 | Permalink


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Um, er, you forgot the third driver of learning: true passionate curiousity.

Posted by: John D. Mitchell | Mar 23, 2005 10:58:12 PM

Kathy, I couldn’t agree with you more. Perhaps the just-in-time concepts stick with us more because they also happen in short, bite-size slices of time. So you not only have the pressure of “learning it now”, probably because of a looming deadline, but also the fact that it’s the only thing you’re learning that minute, hour or even maybe even that day.

John’s point about passionate curiosity also rings true in my household. I have a 15 year-old son who is very bright but only does what he has to. He also dreads homework and doing any reading associated with school. I discovered he had an interest in science a while back and started passing down some of the books I’ve read over the years. That initial interest has now developed into a voracious reading habit. I can’t keep enough science books in the house for him! A “passionate curiosity” definitely describes his interest in the topic.

Posted by: Joe Wikert | Mar 24, 2005 2:54:48 PM

>"Just-in-case learning sucks compared to just-in-time learning."

Exactly! I 'suffered' through high school (but managed good grades :D) because I couldn't find a good reason WHY I was learning the subjects - 70% didn't click. I absolutely hated cramming for the exams - because I knew I won't remember anything after that - that forsaken feeling of "I don't know...".

Books that provide solid examples of applications are among the best, in my opinion. Going through half of the past week attempting to digest fluid dynamics (science), it wasn't fun at all - until I read a book's page on its applications. Now, I believe the brain-gear really fell into place right at that moment.

Posted by: Kevin Teoh | Mar 25, 2005 6:02:46 AM

Thanks folks... and you're right John, but for us-- if they're already passionately curious, then it's too easy ; )

Our challenge is to try to make this work in books and classes even when the learner *isn't*. For every one person in my Sun Java courses who came in with a passion and pure intellectual curiousity, there were at least a dozen who there because (pick one):
* Everyone said they had to learn Java to save their job.
* Their boss sent them.
* The company was switching to Java and they hated the thought of learning yet ANOTHER new language...
* Wanted to learn it, but only the minimum needed to get by.

But you're right, that passionate curiousity is key, and we try to find ways to help "trick" their brain into experiencing at least a little of that, even if they didn't have it coming in. The other challenge is that you have to *keep* doing it for virtually every new topic you bring up... it doesn't work to just provide some great motivation at the beginning, because that still doesn't tell their brain why it should pay attention to all the steps needed to get there...

I'm always shocked when I hear some teachers say that it's simply not their job to care about the people who aren't motivated to learn. To me, that's one of the most exciting parts about doing this. : )

Posted by: kathy Sierra | Mar 25, 2005 1:13:17 PM

another dichotomy? maybe the category where we learned that dichotomies are immature assesments of a situation doesn't fit into this division, so now we can neither retrieve them nor use them...
good points in each 'kind' of learning, but i do recall the sense of seeing an incomplete set when dichotomies were encountered during formal education.

Posted by: jay | Mar 25, 2005 1:51:36 PM

Jay: good point... I tried to make that clear by *not* saying "There are two kinds of learning" or worse "There are ONLY... ", but maybe I should have made it absolutely clear by saying, "Two of the *possible* kinds of learning." but it didn't have the punch...
Virtually ANYTHING I say on this blog comes with the implicit disclaimer of, "Of course there's more to it than this, and I'm overgeneralizing and simplifying for the sake of making a real point in this amount of space..."
However, in some cases there is real *power* in simplification, where things are exposed that might have been obscured by a more complete treatment, and where a path for improvement is clear. But your point is well taken, and I do tend toward simplification because I like to offer solutions at the same time I'm whining about something ; )
Probably every topic we discuss here deserves a whole book to do it right. But this is my unpaid, unedited, in-my-spare-time thing...

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Mar 25, 2005 4:05:26 PM

Ah, I can how my wording led to the implication that I was talking only about the students' passionate curiousity. If anything, whether or not the teacher embodies true passionate curiousity is more important in education. The simple argument is that if the so-called expert who is teaching a class can't be passionately curious both about the subject and the education, how on earth can the students be expected to learn anything meaningful?

Posted by: John D. Mitchell | Mar 26, 2005 11:24:50 AM

This is one of the basic foundations of the Montessori method which my dauhter is in and which I wish I had been in when I was her age.

Posted by: Brian | May 5, 2005 5:52:18 PM

>I'm always shocked when I hear some teachers say that it's simply not their job to care about the people who aren't motivated to learn.

This reminds me of the people whose response to "why should I learn to program?" is: "you shouldn't". I detest that kind of response. The person asking wants help in discovering how to apply this to their lives. If the person saying "you shouldn't" can't figure that out, then how can they expect the person asking to be able to?

I once gave an entire presentation centered around overcoming this attitude. Want Aunt Sally to learn programming? Find out how to help her apply it to things she's *already* interested in!

People learn by connecting new information to what they already know. Helping them create that connection is an important part of any teacher's job.

Posted by: Anna Martelli Ravenscroft | May 9, 2005 5:47:25 PM


I've been wanting to learn java for quite some time. For me Java has been the "just in case" learning for a long time. The just in case mentality is a very sorry-ass mentality. Anyways I have bought books that ate dust voraciously than me or me them.

Anyways I a now in the JIT mode where I just hafta do it the hard way and thankfuly the teacher here, a Java guy right from the early 90's found the books written by Kathy great and I just could'nt beleive my eyes till I read them.

This is beef, meat and every other way that I could get "MY POOR BRAIN"(as Dave Grohl put it) to stay with me while I played(for the first time) with Java.

I'm hooked to it, I finally seem to perceive it like I actually should have perceived it(from my other experiences in life).

Learning Java is getting more easier than ever. Thanks to Kathy and the crew...


Posted by: Tarry Singh | Jun 16, 2005 8:56:29 AM

Thank you; very informative.

Posted by: Chris Charlton | Jun 20, 2005 11:49:44 AM

'Just in Time' versus 'Just in Case' is an interesting angle on learning. Keep in mind however, that the computer profession is hugely biased in favor of JIT. Programming languages, libraries, protocols, etc., change rapidly and you can learn what you need pretty fast.

Compare this to graduate level physics. There is great power and beauty in dynamics (classical and quantum), electrodynamics, thermophysics, etc. You cannot even discuss this stuff until you have mastered tons of JIC mathematics.

Posted by: Ralph Kelsey | Jun 21, 2005 11:08:49 PM

Wow, I just saw this for the first time. I haven't read it yet, but had to reply because I have gotten to the point were I always say that I am a JIT Learner. There is so much technology out there, that learning some technology that you aren't using or going to use in the very near future won't be remembered, and that anything that I learned in the past can be "forgotten" but brought back in a very quick time if needed now.

If I memorize the Java API JavaDocs, I feel that I have used up a good amount of short term memory space, that I could have used more wisely and more efficiently on the task at hand.

Thanks again for posting such great articles.

Posted by: Mark Spritzler | Jun 22, 2005 10:20:19 AM

And a very good unpaid, unedited, in-my-spare-time thing it is! Keep it up I love your articles especially with the funny pictures to start it off.

Posted by: Ross Hill | Oct 3, 2005 2:12:23 AM

Should you use JIC to learn theoretical concepts (e.g. what a normalised database is) and JIT for how to apply the technology to implement the concepts (e.g. how to set up a normalised database in SQL server). The underlying concepts change less quickly, and you never know exactly how you need to implement a concept in technology until you do it in practice.

Posted by: Richard Jonas | Nov 11, 2005 3:47:09 AM

I'm always shocked when I hear some teachers say that it's simply not their job to care about the people who aren't motivated to learn. To me, that's one of the most exciting parts about doing this. : )

Posted by: kolli kolli | Mar 16, 2007 5:27:29 PM

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