The learning curve is a bit of a cliché, frequently used and misused. People talk about any new learning experience, especially a challenging one, as a learning curve, which is fair enough up to a point. So what’s it really about?
The learning curve is an S curve. You could think of it as a journey, where you’re travelling along, steadily, on a straight road; then the road turns uphill and the journey becomes harder work; before it levels off again at the top of the hill, and you find yourself making steady progress again, but at a higher level.
Without wishing to labour the metaphor, if you apply it to a work situation, you may be working away steadily until you encounter something new, whereupon you struggle a bit until you learn how to tackle this new development, and then you continue to work away, but now perhaps more productively, or to a higher standard, as a result of the learning.
But this is an example of the classic misuse, which is to talk about a steep or sharp learning curve when what is meant is that the learning is difficult; the metaphor of the uphill journey encourages this misunderstanding. In fact, if the curve is steep, this means the learning is quick and easy; a slow ascent of a more gentle curve would indicate a more challenging learning experience.
Perhaps we should conceive a new metaphor, but the best I can suggest is to reverse the gravity, so that the steep curve goes downwards like a slide, working in the learner’s favour. I’m sure there must be a better way of representing the curve to correct the misuse and render its undoubted relevance greater clarity. Any suggestions?
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