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An Operating System for the Mind

Originally posted on Half an Hour, September 19, 2009.

The core of the opposition to what are being called "21st century skills" is contained in the following argument: "Cognitive science teaches us that skills and knowledge are interdependent and that possessing a base of knowledge is necessary to the acquisition not only of more knowledge, but also of skills. Skills can neither be taught nor applied effectively without prior knowledge of a wide array of subjects."

In response, I pose this question to the defenders of this 'base of knowledge', "why is a common core necessary for the teaching of skills, and why is testing of that core necessary." And specifically, "the question isn't whether skills can be taught in isolation, but rather whether they must be taught in the context of some common base of knowledge and whether students ought to be tested on the basis of that knowledge.

The point I am making may seem difficult to understand intuitively, because it seems to suggest that you don`t need deep knowledge of any discipline. A commenter, for example, says, "we want them to think critically, to criticize, analyze, and apply. So we say, draw on the theories of developmental psychology, in particular Erikson and Arens to learn more about individuals in their early twenties. A Based on this understanding, develop a plan to deal with risk taking behavior in junior colleges. Don't they need to first have a 'base of knowledge' in who these theorists are?"

The argument - and it's a reasonable argument - is basically, "you need to know psychology to do psychology; 21st century skills don't give you some kind of short-cut to being able to do psychology without some sort of deep understanding of the subject." And the 'core knowledge' people can take their argument a step further: you can't learn psychology without first learning various other things - the knowledge of psychology builds on these things, and that's why we need a grounding in core knowledge.

This form of argument is very common, and you'll find it repeated over and over - people need to know about bones to study medicine, people need to know about the elements to study chemistry, people need to know about history to study politics. Stated this way, the argument seems plausible, and the people promoting 21st century skills look like shysters, promoting something that will leave people unable to work in any discipline, let alone become psychologists, scientists and engineers.

In response to this line of reasoning, let me be upfront about saying a few things:

First, it isn't impossible to teach people facts. Quite the opposite is the case - we understand, and can prove (and have proved, over and over) that we can teach facts very simply and easily, through repetition, rote, memorization, practice examples, worked examples, and more. People can memorize the alphabet, the multiplication tables, the Koran, whatever. A great deal of our education today in fact turns on this very proposition: it consists of the teaching of facts, and the testing for recall of those facts.

Second, it isn't wrong to teach facts. Or (perhaps more accurately) to learn facts. Having an easy memory recall of a body of facts will serve a person well in life. Knowing the multiplication tables, knowing the capital of France, knowing that carbon and hydrogen are elements (and that plastic is not) will be useful in a wide range of areas. Teaching children facts is a great shortcut, the great shortcut, in human development.

Third, we need facts to do stuff. We need to know about psychology, about Freud and Jung and maybe Erikson and Arens, in order to do the job. We need to know about navigation and aerodynamics and where the brake lever is in order to fly an airplane. As anyone who drive knows, you need to know the rules of the road, the meaning of signs, the location of the steering wheel, in order to drive. To do anything, you need to know stuff.

Not only do I make these statements, I would say that any person who is an advocate of 21st century learning also makes these statements. I can't imagine anyone seriously proposing any sort of educational reform who does not agree with these statements. This is important, because it means it isn't sufficient to respond to advocates of 21st century skills by saying 'we need facts'. Everybody has already agreed with that. That's why I pose my question, above, more precisely: do we need these specific facts? Do we need a common core?

The reason I pose these questions in particular is that, while it is necessary (and possible) to teach facts to people, it comes with a price. And the price is this: facts learned in this way, and especially by rote, and especially at a younger age, take a direct route into the mind, and bypass a person's critical and reflective capacities, and indeed, become a part of those capacities in the future.

When you teach children facts as facts, and when you do it through a process of study and drill, it doesn't occur to children to question whether or not those facts are true, or appropriate, or moral, or legal, or anything else. Rote learning is a short circuit into the brain. It's direct programming. People who study, and learn, that 2+2=4, know that 2+2=4, not because they understand the theory of mathematics, not because they have read Hilbert and understand formalism, or can refute Brouwer and reject intuitionism, but because they know (full stop) 2+2=4.

I used the phrase "it's direct programming" deliberately. This is an analogy we can wrap our minds around. We can think of direct instruction as being similar to direct programming. It is, effectively, a mechanism of putting content into a learner's mind as effectively and efficiently as possible, so that when the time comes later (as it will) that the learner needs to use that fact, it is instantly and easily accessible.

Interestingly, that's how many people used to think of electronic information systems - as mechanisms into which you input facts to facilitate easy discovery and retrieval. The computer, or online systems (such as Minitel) were visualized as giant electronic libraries, with the sum total of the world's knowledge at our disposal. The computer was thought of as some sort of electronic book, radio or TV. A place where we could, whenever we wanted, get facts. Put the facts into the system, and come up with some mechanism to get them out. Like Newell and Simon's "General Problem Solver" of 1957.

We know now - and, indeed, have probably always known - that an education based strictly and solely in facts is insufficient. The reasons are legion, but I will focus on six major points:

First. There are more facts in the world than anyone could know, which means that we need to be able to find facts that we do not already know. This is the first facet of literacy, the ability to read, view or listen (etc).

Second. As time passes, facts change, and so we need the capacity to know when facts change and to be able to update our own knowledge of these facts. We need to be able to learn - that is, to change the previously existing state of our knowledge.

Third. And as the number of people, and the amount of information, in the world increases, we need some mechanism for selecting which facts we will be exposed to, and how to filter out irrelevant facts. We need to be able to determine what is salient or important to ourselves and to others.

Fourth. Even more critically, not every bit of information presented to you in life will be a fact, and you need some mechansism to detect and reject false representations of facts. We need, in other words, some mechanism for comparing and assessing facts.

Fifth. Additionally, we need to know which, of the many facts we have in our possession, constitute a basis for action. We need some sense of, and mechanism for, agency in the world, a sense that we can not only receive, input and assess facts, but that we can create facts in the world.

Sixth. Finally, we need the capacity to act, which may mean some physical activity, or may mean some communicative activity, a set of abilities we can place under the heading of empowerment, as they involve not only the physical capacity to undertake an act, the knowledge which informs that act, but also the willingness to undertake it, the believe that one is entitled to act, and the faith that one's acts can have an impact on the world.

These six elements (and there may be more) constitute what people have taken to calling '21st century skills'.

One might ask: why '21st century'? Because, after all, haven't these skills already been important? Haven't we always had to have the capacity to learn, assess, and act? And, of course, we have. But what has happened recently is, first, there has been a proliferation of new skills in these areas that arise as a result of 21st century technology, and second, the importance of these skills, relative to a basis for learning in facts, has dramatically changed in recent years.

Let me address the second of these points first.

First. In a world of a million facts, if you learned a hundred thousand you could get by with your basic education and a good library. But in a world of a trillion facts, your education of a hundred thousand facts is pitifully small, probably irrelevant, and no library is large enough to hold all the facts. You need a new skill, a way to access the facts you need from an ocean of facts, and the tools of a person who used to just dip from the well will be insufficient.

Second. Our world of a trillion facts, moreover, is much less static than the old world of a million facts. New facts come into being all the time. It used to be, if you knew who married whom, you knew. Now you need a scorecard. It used to be, there were basic foundational elements. Now there are quarks and muons and who knows what showing up in the scientific press tomorrow. It used to be the case that planets were discovered, and in all of human history, this had happened nine times. Now new planets are discovered every week and our understanding of what is a planet has changed. You need new skills to keep track of how what you know has changed, and the skills of a person who simply accumulates facts are insufficient.

Third. It used to be you needed to know about your home and community, and maybe a bit about your state and your country, basics of mathematics and language, farming or mechanics, and that was about it. Now you need to know about the prince of pears in Japan, growing unrest in Mongolia, the basics of everything from electronics to finance to algebra, and still, most of the information you are presented with every day is irrelevant to you. You need new skills to be able to select and prioritize information, and the skills of a person who just watched and learned are not enough.

Fourth. Our world of a trillion facts consists consists of many new types of fact that must be assessed in new ways. In the ancient world, reason consisted of the syllogisms and geometry and numbers, and was used by a small number of philosophers. In the renaissance we extended our understanding of propositional logic and discovered the calculus, and these were used by courtly scholars. In the 20th century we discovered that logic and mathematics are part of the same system, added probability and statistics, and developed imaging and video technology, and these were used by scientists and professors. By the 21st we have learned about networking, programming, photoshopping, topes and memes, visual literacy, and more, and these (along with all the rest) need to be used by everyone. In the 21st century, there are more types of reasoning, and they must be used by more people.

Fifth. Just as in the 20th century everyday people learned skills not even imagined in previous years (like, say, driving a car), the 21st century is seeing an accelerated need for new skills. Just imagine, in the first decade we have seen the need for a host of skills related to managing one's presence in a social network, finding information using a search engine, and more (much more). We need to be able to turn our knowledge into these and other sorts of skills very quickly. And more and more people need to be able to learn these skills.

Sixth. The rise of internet technology has corresponded with a rise of activism and agency. In the world of even a few decades ago, the mass of people did their jobs, did what they were told, and exercised their options - if they lived in a democracy - through the vote. Today, people manage much more of their own lives (and clamour for even more). Almost everyone lives in a democracy, and even if people don't vote, they are increasingly involved in community activities, not mere socializing outside the family but organizing, participating, creating, lobbying and more. The skills we need in order to simply act are far more than what used to be required, and are needed by far more people.

So these 21st century skills are more numerous and needed by more people than ever in the last few years, with no sign of this trend changing or even slowing down. What of their relation to facts?

Not so long ago, pretty much every bit of information a person needed in his or her life could be taught as a fact, which basic mechanisms - such as literacy - being used to make up the difference. Spending a lot of time teaching facts could be justified, because people needed basic knowledge to survive in an industrial world, needed to be able to understand the basics of language and literature, science and mathematics, and - crucially - not much more. And anything that detracted from that learning made a person less able to cope in society. These useless 'soft' skills might help with their hobbies and avocations, but they wouldn't help them get a job or do well in their career.

Today, the situation has completely turned around because of the six factors identified above. People need such greater capacities in literacy, learning, prioitizing, evaluation, planning and acting. And as their need for these dynamic skills and capacities increases, their need for facts decreases. Indeed, the more these skills are needed, the more the teaching of facts as facts actually impairs the teaching of these skills. The more static our teaching, the less dynamic the learner can be.

Let's return to the computer system analogy. Let's imagine we are designing a computer system. We have a certain amount of memory, a lot, enough for our purposes but not so much that every fact in the world can be stored on it. Just like a human brain. And we have certain expectations of our computing system -that it can help people lead their lives, for example, that it will be useful in the current work environment, that it can help improve productivity and make decisions.

We could simply fill it up with facts. That's what we did with books: a book is basically a system that does nothing but store facts. Assuming we had some way to access those facts, it would be a superb resource. A library on a desk. If we had some mechanism for querying what it knows - basic literacy - we would have a system that could do a lot of useful things.

But it wouldn't do what we wanted, would it? We would want, at the very least, a computer system that could add new facts. We want some way of writing to memory and to (perhaps) change existing memory. And, in fact, once we started along these lines, we discovered that we want our computer systems to do a lot more than to simply store facts. So much so, in fact, that the storage of facts in the computer became a secondary activity.

Think about it for a second. Our computer system, the one we use to do finances, when it came out of the box, knew nothing about finances. The brand new hardware, when it came off the assembly line, that we use to read Shakespeare, knew nothing about literature. The computer, which now performs advanced engineering, when it was first delivered, had only the basic rudiments of mathematics, and knew nothing about applied math, geometry or physics.

Even more importantly: if we had, while we were building this computer, programmed into it the knowledge of finances, literature and mathematics, it would have been a less useful computer, not a more useful computer. Nobody would build a financial system into the operating system (much less the hardware); it would be obsolete with the next year's tax laws and would double the amount of time (and cost) it took to set it up. It would be nice to receive a computer with the basic works of literature pre-installed, but only if we were actually planning to read them; otherwise, it's simply a waste of disk space and an unneeded addition to the cost.

And even more significantly: even if we could program all of this knowledge, all of these facts, into the computer ahead of time, we have no idea how we could actually use these facts in day-to-day operations. Sure, you could provide any fact you were asked, but then what? How do these facts combine to form a computer game? A term paper? A funding proposal? A new house? Sure, you may need facts to do any of these things - but which facts? In what order? It makes no sense to store everything you could possibly need ahead of time, and even if it did, it makes no sense to store these facts without first understanding how they might be used, where they might be used, when then might be used.

And what we discover when we think about it this way is that it's not simple whether or not we need facts that is important, but also, what format the facts are in that is equally important, if not more important.

Again, suppose you are contemplating a computer purchase. You know that you want a tool to help you do your job and the rest. You decide ahead of time that it will need facts, because you are convinced that you can't do your work without facts. So you go out and buy a bunch of books.

Then, when you get your computer, you will feel cheated. The computer is stupid. It can't do anything. And when you need a fact, you go to your books, not the computer. The computer may have a lit of skills, you may say, but what I need in order to do my work are facts. And so you continue to maintain that the best way to support your work is to use a printing press and to store your facts in books.

What you have done, of course, is not only to use an older, less efficient, system for storing and retrieving facts, you've cheated yourself out of a way to accomplish a whole range of new tasks and activities. You've cheated yourself out of the very possibility of mastering these new skills. Think about the problems you've created by depending on a library, by depending on an information system in which facts are impressed on a storage medium:

- you have to buy new books to get new information, an ongoing and expensive activity

- your books don't update, and you have no real way of knowing when any bit of a book is out of date

- you have no good means of choosing which books to buy; you can handle your local bookstore, but the thought of a library with a trillion books is frightening

- you have no way of knowing whether something in a book is true or false

- you have no way to move beyond 'book learning', and nothing in the book tells you when you should do something (your actions are underdetermined by your knowledge; should you believe the sceptic, who says there is no floor, or the alarmist, who says the building is on fire?)

- you can't develop skills; despite reading all about 'bicycle riding' you still fall over

You need, in other words, need to acquire facts in a format appropriate to your knowledge system.

That's why, when we design computers, first we build the hardware, then we install the operating system, then we install application programs, and only then do we add the data - the facts with which we expect our computer to work.

The same principle applies in education and learning.

Take driving, for example. If our knowledge of how to drive depended on a set of facts, then at a certain point it would become impossible, because while we could teach people how to drive on common streets and in common situations, as we drive further and further away from home, in newer and different vehicles, our knowledge becomes less relevant, until eventually we are simply unable to drive. If, instead of focusing on the 'facts' of driving, we think of driving as an activity or skill, then we are able to adapt, and develop new abilities, and new knowledge, mastering the ability to drive in strange places as we progress.

Or take mathematics, for example. If we just need basic mathematics - operations, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and calculus - then we could simply learn the facts and we're fine. But if we envision actually working with mathematics, and extending our knowledge of mathematics well beyond these basics, then our method of learning by adding facts will make it harder and harder to progress, and beyond a certain point, progress will become impossible. If, however, mathematics is taught, not as a set of facts, but as a skill, then advanced mathematics becomes more like new terrain over which we are navigating, rather than new stuff we have to memorize.

21st century skills are, in short, an operating system for the mind.

They constitute the processes and capacities that make it possible for people to navigate a fact-filled landscape, a way to see, understand and acquire those facts in such a way as to be relevant and useful, and in the end, to be self-contained and autonomous agents capable of making their own decisions and directing their own lives, rather than people who need to learn ever larger piles of 'facts' in order to do even the most basic tasks.

And even more: when we understand facts in this way, when we understand that facts are like data, then we obtain a more sophisticated understanding of the nature of facts themselves. Because, throughout this discussion, we have been using the word 'facts' uncritically, as though they represent some atomic basic, a state of understanding below which we cannot delve. But in fact, we can see, through our newly acquired critical capacities, that our relation with facts is much more contingent than previously supposed.

And it is that that the common core people object to. Not simply that people can be taught new skills and capacities. But rather, that these skills and capacities result in an understanding that facts are created, and that they, too, can create facts. That facts are not beyond questioning, and that facts not only should be questioned, they must be questioned. The common core people want the means and the ability to implant unquestioned truths into the minds of children, and this in an environment where the possession of unquestioned truths becomes to be more and more of a handicap, an impediment, a barrier to personal growth and prosperity.

They want to use children to promote their own political agenda, rather than to enable children to have lives, beliefs and faiths of their own.

What we have learned - what we are understanding, uniquely, in the 21st century - is that the nature of facts is very different from anything we thought before:

First. Facts are not simply read, they are not simply expressed in language, and they are not independent of the means in which they are expressed. The very same truth, expressed in a poem, says something different than expressed in a photograph; the very same truth, told to your girlfriend, means something very different when expressed to your grandmother. There are not only many languages, there are many forms of expression, and literacy involves not only reading books, but reading faces, photos, idea, omens and portents, signs, between the lines, and much, much more.

Second. Facts change. There is no simple hierarchy of facts, with some facts being universally true in all cases (because the same fact, represented differently, becomes a different fact, meaning something different). Our understanding of the world changes, it shifts and weaves about like a riverbed, it grows and it shrinks as we look more or less closely at a state of affairs. At any given time, we only have a point of view, a perspective, a way of seeing a fact, never the whole thing, a fact-in-itself, which means that even if there is a fixed state of affairs in the world, we each can at best attain knowledge only of a part of it, and that other people, inevitably, will understand only a different part of it.

Third. Some facts are important and some facts are not. Some facts are salient - vivid, impressive, animated - and have an impact on how we see the world, how we categorize things, how we decide whether things are similar or different. In some cases, it may make no different in our lives whether or not some fact is the case (and we, therefore, have no way of knowing whether it is true), while in other cases, the fact of the matter may be of the utmost importance to us. And different facts are important to different people, and there is no single set of facts - none - that is important to everybody.

Fourth. There is no easy way to determine what is a fact and what is a misrepresentation, but there are ways, and these ways are accessible to everybody. When somebody tells you that '1+1=3', it doesn't matter whether you know psychology, or physics, or engineering, or whatever it is that they're talking about, you can still know that they are misleading you in some way. Though every domain, every discipline, every person may have their own specific knowledge, their own way of talking, there is no need for you to accept statements from that domain, discipline or person, simply because you are not know every fact. Detecting deception is a skill and you need it just as much as your computer needs to be able to detect malware and viruses.

Fifth. You need to be able to decide. To consider the state of affairs, consider the date you have at your disposal, and to take some action. This involves some decision-making mechanism that is not rote performance, but rather, a complex exercise of calculation that involves the entire mind, and not simple rules or principles of action.

Sixth. You need to have the capacity to act. The skills that you need to create output, to communicate your thoughts and beliefs and desires, to transport oneself, to manipulate the environment, to interact and participate in the wider social order in a meaningful way. This involves not only the performance of one's job but also participation as a citizen in society, a creator and contributor to culture, the creation and raising of a family, and the nurturing of one own physical, mental and spiritual life.

We are in a period of transition. We still to a great degree treat facts as things and of education as the acquisition of those things. But more and more, as our work, homes and lives become increasingly complex, we see this understanding becoming not only increasingly obsolete, but increasingly an impediment.

Today - surely we've seen enough evidence of this! - if you simply follow the rules, do what you're told, do your job and stay out of trouble, you will be led to ruin. It's like sitting on a log floating in a river: it works for a while, and seems like the safest place to me, but all the while, you're approaching a waterfall. Whether it be a financial crash, the degradation of the environment, war and terrorism, or even something as simple as a car accident or family crisis, you will need more and more the ability to keep yourself afloat in troubled and rapidly changing circumstances, and an abundance of facts will not help you, it will instead sweep you over the waterfall.
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