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Should we practice continuous learning?

I enjoy working in an organisation where we are learning from the work we do. An example of this would be using retrospectives to enable the team to learn from their work and taking this knowledge forward to help the team. 

Until recently I have called this approach continuous learning. It sounded right, as it felt to me that agile and lean were about doing things continuously, such as continuous deployment.

I recently spoke with Kevin Cahill, and during the conversation, I used the phrase continuous learning. He told me that he had used the phrase ‘continuous learning’ when talking with his grandfather, W. Edwards Deming. His grandfather had told him that when talking about learning he should use the word continual not continuous and that he should look up in the dictionary the meaning of the two words.

When I looked up the meaning of the two words on google found: 


“forming an unbroken whole; without interruption.”


“forming a sequence in which the same action or event is repeated frequently.”

There is an important difference between the two words. Continuous learning would mean learning without interruption. This style of learning would be mechanical with no let up and no time to think. Continual learning would involve repeated learning and allows time for study and reflection.

The difference between continuous and continual is not just semantics. It is about an approach to learning.  

We use continuous to describe automated processes such as continuous integration and continuous deployment. These processes are carried out by machines and so can not benefit from studying or reflecting as we do

 An example of continual learning would be, if we work in an iterative way using a plan-do-study-act cycle, we may have to wait a while before we can study the outcome of our work. Our learning is continual because we have had to wait, and during that time we may reflect on the work we did.

I now think of learning as being continual, not continuous.


Published by Mike Harris

Mike has been working in testing for 20 years and is currently the lone tester for Geckoboard. He has been a Test Lead and has also worked as a part of waterfall, lean and agile teams. He is also Programme Secretary of BCS SIGiST. Mike has a B.Sc.(HONS) from Middlesex University and is an Associate of the University of Hertfordshire. He has set up and led a Testing Community of Practice and been part of a successful agile transition. He is Co-Programme Chair of the British Computer Society’s Specialist Interest Group in Software Testing. He also contributed to the e-book Testing Stories and has had articles published by the Ministry of Testing. Follow Mike on Twitter: @TestAndAnalysis

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