I’m confused about whether you’re talking about “learning things specifically to solve a problem” (which I’ve seen called “pull-based learning”), or “learning things by doing projects” (i.e.: project-based learning). The former differs from the “waterfall method” (“push-based learning”) only in the sequence and selection: it’s just the difference between doing a Scala tutorial because you want to learn Scala, vs. because you just got put on a project that uses Scala (and hence you can skip parts of the tutorial the project doesn’t use).
For actual PBL: I am a PBL skeptic. I’ve seen so many people consider it self-evident that learning physics by building a catapult is superior to doing textbook problems that I wrote a blog post to highlight some of the major downsides: http://www.pathsensitive.com/2018/02/the-practice-is-not-performance-why.html . I’ve seen it become a fad, but I’ve not seen the After I wrote the blog post, I had a lot of people tell me about their negative experiences with PBL. One that stands out is a guy who took a PBL MOOC on driverless cars, and didn’t like it because they spent too much time learning about how to use some special pieces of software rather than anything fundamental or transferable.
Advantages of PBL:
More motivating to some
Includes all aspects of practice needed in performance (e.g.: does not omit the skill of integrating many smaller skills together)
Does not naturally lead to correct sequencing of knowledge
Not optimized for rapid learning; does not teach subskills independently
May omit skills which are useful for compressing knowledge, but not directly useful in practice (e.g.: learning chord structure makes it easier to memorize songs, but is not directly used in performing music)
May include overly-specific, non-reusable knowledge
I don’t think PBL works very efficiently. I think it can produce a lot of successful practitioners, but have trouble seeing how it could produce someone able to push the boundaries of a field. I will gladly pay $10 to anyone who can give me an example of someone well-regarded in mathematics (e.g.: multiple publications in top journals in the past decade, where this person was the primary contributor) who acquired their mathematics chiefly by PBL (i.e.: not studying mathematics except for what is needed to work on a specific problem, concurrently with working on the problem).
I actually got directed to your article by another person before this! Congrats on creating something that people actually reference!
On hindsight, yeah, project based learning is nor what I meant nor a good alternative to traditional learning; if you can use cheat codes to speed up your learning using the experience from somebody else you should do so without a doubt.
The generator of this post is a combination of the following observations:
1) I see a lot of people who keep waiting for a call to adventure
2) Most knowledge I have acquired through life has turned out to be useless, non transferable and/or fades out very quickly
3) It makes sense to think that people get a better grasp of what skills they need to solve a problem (such as producing high quality AI Alignment research) after they have grappled with the problem. This feels specially true when you are in the edge of a new field, because there is no one else you can turn to who would be able to compress their experience in a digestible format.
4) People (specially in mathematics) have a tendency to wander around aimlessly picking up topics, and then use very few of what they learn. Here I am standing on not very solid ground, because conventional wisdom is that you need to wander around to “see the connections”, but I feel like that might be just confirmation bias creeping in.
Put that in your post! I got what you’re saying way better after reading that.