The Mythical Man Month of Education

Posted on January 20, 2012


In software there is a term, “the mythical man month”. It refers to the idea that, in order to speed up a project, you can simply throw more man months at it. You can have people work longer hours or add additional team members to the project.

The reason it’s called “mythical” is because it doesn’t work. You can’t simply add more people to a project to get it done faster. More often than not you’ll actually slow down the project. The added coordination that is required when you add on team members actually reduces the amount of quality work done by the team as a whole. It’s why many successful companies keep their internal teams as small as possible (2-3 people frequently). It’s also why startups have an advantage over larger companies. They can get stuff done faster despite having fewer resources.

I feel like there needs to be an equivalent term for education. Too many people seem to think that in order for students to compete in the global landscape of tomorrow, they need to spend more time learning. There seems to be very little respect for the idea that more time spent learning does not guarantee that more learning is taking place.

An unmotivated learner that is forced to sit still in a learning environment will not learn anything.

A mentally exhausted learner that is forced to sit still in a learning environment will not learn anything.

All you end up with is a bunch of teachers who are spinning their wheels trying to force every last drop of knowledge in to an unreceptive learner. Although it may lead to more learning, the result is hardly efficient and may have seriously damaging ramifications in the long run (if you’re forced to do something hour after hour with no breaks and no ability to ever do what you want to do you’re likely to begin hating that activity very quickly).

We need to be focusing more on motivation than on man hours. As far as I’m concerned motivation, especially intrinsic motivation (autonomy, progress, curiosity, purpose), is the key to unlocking the true educational potential of an individual. The more we focus on raw man hours the more we fall victim to “the mythical man month of education”.



Posted in: General, Motivation