I recently attended a curriculum night for my eldest son who is starting 2nd grade. The teacher talked about a learning method known as ‘spiral learning’ and that the kids would continue to cycle through a range of topics in each subject, revisiting each topic at a deeper level later in the year. I had never heard of ‘spiral learning’ before. After a few passed I realised that I use the ‘spiral learning’ approach all the time without having a term to define it.
Spiral learnings’ nemesis is mastery-based learning. In mastery-based learning you must master each topic before being permitted to proceed to the next topic. I can’t remember too much of my secondary level education but I think we were supposed to be following the mastery-based approach.
Master I am not
I spend a lot of time thinking that I’m engaged in mastery-based learning when I’m actually engaged in spiral-based learning. This is most evident when you’re studying for a certification. Let’s look at any certification. You try to ‘master’ each topic in depth before moving on to the next. You say to yourself “I’ll just master OSPF and then move onto BGP”.
Sadly…it’s very hard to ‘master’ any topic, and it’s not a requirement of the certification either. To achieve mastery is having no unanswered questions, knowing the why’s as well as the what’s, and having profound insights into the topic. I see ‘mastery’ as a euphemism for ‘perfection’. Even if it were possible to dig so deep as to answer all the outstanding questions, one would never get to cover other really important areas.
learning just enough and moving on
The certification pyramids of the major vendors adopt this approach of spiral learning, not mastery. For example, OSPF is covered in successively greater depths at CCNA, CCNP and CCIE levels. What we’re really trying to do is learn ‘just enough’ to get through this round of learning on this topic. There’s always more to learn, but you need to apply and test the skills and knowledge you’ve already attained and gain some feedback. Or you move on to another learning area like scripting and get the basics there. Then spiral back around to dig deeper on your original topic. I’ve used the example of certifications here, but it applies equally well to self-guided or on-the-job learning.
Harnessing spiral learning
It is incredibly frustrating to have to suspend your studies on a topic before you’ve had a change to get your open questions answered. You have this niggling feeling that you’re close to getting a crucial insight that would ‘lock-in’ your learning, and you don’t know when you’ll get to revisit the topic.
But realising that you implicitly taking the spiral-learning approach is a crucial insight. You now know you’ll be back to this topic again either because you scheduled it, or because you want to solve a problem in your work or studies. You can relax because you’re confident that you can pick up where you left off, when the time is right. Note that this only works if you have have rock solid notes. I would argue that your notes need to contain some of the following data:
- What you have learned and observed (helps you refresh)
- Where you think you have gaps (helps you plan your next studies)
- Open questions, what-if’s and challenges which probe these gaps (brings you to the next level)
- Look at the different learning approaches that exist, and see if they apply to you.
- Learn that it’s okay to suspend your learning and move on.
- Make it easy for yourself to pick up the topics again, by keeping rock solid notes.
- Ensure you record your unanswered questions and challenges for your future self.
I think most people would agree that the major certification approached still don’t cover the practical aspects of the job. For example, SSH, SNMP, scripting, TCP/IP, HTTP, DNS, physical-installs, cable management, etc.
How do you work these key-topics into the ‘learning-spiral of the major certifications? What systems do you use to manage your learning and deal with the depths versus breath challenge of an every expanding realm of knowledge?
Would love to hear from you in the comments.