Against two commonplaces
Two great pieces this week, one on project-based learning, the other on work-life balance.
Against project-based learning
I was musing on Twitter about the in-practice defects of project-based learning…
…and someone clued me in to this phenomenal piece by Jimmy Koppel from 2018:
Koppel is writing about teaching adults computer science, but he draws on examples from many other learning domains: mathematics, martial arts, music theory, and more.
It’s time to stop looking for panaceas and shortcuts and realize that deliberate learning and deliberate practice—as a separate activity from the everyday doing—is the only way to mastery. As famed gymnastics coach Chris Sommer puts it, the fastest way to learn is to do things the slow way. Studying the fundamentals may seem like a distraction keeping you from getting your hands dirty making a Rails app using the Google Maps and Twilio APIs, but when you do get there, you’ll find there is less to learn if you’ve already compressed the knowledge into concepts.
There’s much more to say about what it means to “study the fundamentals”, especially in primary school, when students aren’t necessarily by default coming to their learning with clear goals, long-term or otherwise. One of the arguments for PBL that Koppel doesn’t address is that projects aren’t just “real” in the sense of being more ecologically valid learning contexts, they are real in the sense that they have real motives built-in.
But I’m in broad agreement with Koppel: the skeleton of an educational program should be highly designed learning paths designed to enable learning—really learning, not just sort of learning—the most comparatively fundamental and powerful concepts in an efficient, reliable way.
The whole premise of education, in my mind, is that there are ways to support this learning that are better, far better, than just “figure it out as you go”. The ecological validity of real work is important, especially in primary education, since primary education must not skew a child towards a misbegotten notion of work or life or problem-solving. But, for education to be effective, it must have threads and patterns that draw out and scaffold more fundamental concepts and skills.
Against work-life balance
I’m skeptical about the notion of “work-life balance”. Not that there aren’t questions about how to integrate work into one’s life, or concerns about over-prioritizing work over other elements of life. It’s that I think the frame of work-life balance is unhelpful:
“Life” is the wrong contrast for “work”.
“Balance” is the wrong metaphor for how to relate the different elements of one’s life. Your life is not some sort of precarious scale that needs to be evened out.
Relating those two points: what is the scale even supposed to be? It’s not your life, because “life” is an element to be weighed on the scale.
More from me here on Twitter, but Scott Kennedy wrote a great personal reflection that I think speaks to the inadequacy of the metaphor:
Kennedy actually explicitly uses work-life balance in his piece, so it isn’t a critique. But what he actually does is extend the metaphor:
Somebody once described balance to me as three buckets filled with water. One for career, a second for physical health, and a third for social and family life. At any point, one bucket might be running low. But as long as the overall water level is high enough, things should be fine.
Importantly: the water represents your level of satisfaction, not the hours you spend.
He has three categories that are more precisely named, not two. And rather than just balancing the two, it’s about the amount of water in each bucket, and the overall amount of water amongst all three buckets—a complex thing that isn’t just a matter of time spent.
He concludes by describing his improved state:
I work more hours. I’m more likely to be working in the evening or on the weekend now. But what I do makes a difference that I can see. Progress feels 10x faster.
Most surprising is that I have more energy. It’s easier to find motivation to get back in the gym. I have more energy in social situations.
When one bucket fills, it can overflow.
Kennedy’s metaphor is good precisely because it eschews a simple notion of balance in favor of an overall abundance of energy and motivation, which is much closer to how I think about it. An apparently lopsided life can actually be more “balanced”, that is, integrated and fulfilling.
One more notion that names the problem and the solution more precisely than work-life balance: Mission without Martyrdom.
At Higher Ground, Montessorium’s parent organization, Mission without Martyrdom is one of our core values. It’s an identification of what to seek—a sense of mission, of joy and meaning in chosen work—and what to avoid—a sense of martyrdom, of grinding through an unchosen obligation. It’s abstract enough to accommodate a variety of different possible answers to the question of what specifically the good life consists in, e.g. how much time one spends working, with family, and so on.
Ray Girn had a lovely staff note last week that touched on this notion as well as one major way to maintain that joy and meaning: consciously seek out inspiring performances.
Thoughts on the soft skills obtained during PBL? I support teaching through more concrete, real methods. When my daughter talks with me about the seemingly endless series of PBL at her (middle) school- I always find more value as what the act of working and negotiating with others teaches her. Hardly impressed with the concept comprehension.