An Operating System for the Mind

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.


  1. If anyone ever asks me what I think about all of this, I can now say simply, 'What he says!' and point to this post.

    Thanks, Stephen.


  2. Stephen,

    This is the first thing I read on this glorious Sunday morning, light streaming in my window - and from your keyboard.


  3. TLDR
    that's way more than half an hour writings!

    (don't take it personally, just had to laugh like that)

  4. I love the "operating system for the mind" concept... perhaps people will now understand that 21st century learning isn't just a fad... but something to be taken seriously if we want to do the right things by our kids re learning for a 21st century society! Thanks - thoroughly enjoyed this.

  5. Beautifully written and well expressed, this post sums up what I have felt intuitively since I started my learning journey at age 4: teaching me by rote scares me because I have to rely on a system I may not understand and am bound to make mistakes. I've always hated "step by step" instructions that didn't explain why things were done in a certain way. What is challenging for the "facts" faction is that once new people understanding the underlying reasons why something is done a certain way - these n00bies might challenge the underlying assumptions and reasoning and question the system and methods! Thanks for this!

    Cheers -


  6. Thank you so much for this post! It is superbly written.
    I have conversations similar to this with myself in my head every time I have to give my students a math test - although my thoughts are not anywhere near as sophisticated, extensive or as well expressed as yours are here! Unfortunately I have found that students, once they get used to it, like to be tested on "facts". Sadly, thinking, exploring ideas and concepts, gathering and integrating information, etc. is something we have trained out of them. We need to reclaim a lot more of that.
    I will have to read over this a few times and really digest it. Thanks for putting your thoughts in writing for us!

  7. I really liked both this Stephen and your Web 2.0 and Your Own Learning and Development video which I have just watched. Thank you for your thoughts.

  8. I love this conclusion, "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 resonates with me to be sure. I just mentioned to my students this week that "If all you do is follow directions and do what you are told, you are little more than a well-trained dog or trick pony, and the last thing I want is for you to be a bunch of trick ponies." I think I like "led to ruin" a even better though.

    While I am not terribly crazy about the term, this is the best explanation of 21st century skills I have seen to date. Well done.

  9. But if you teach children to think critically, they will start to ask questions. Hard questions. About everything. So you have to ask yourself: Are you feeling lucky Punk? Are YOU smarter than a 5th grader?

    And if they learn to think creatively, they will surely turn all that creativity to damaging mischief. Or worse, become artists. Quelle horreur.

    If you have a million (concrete) dollars but don't have an understanding of the abstract concepts that allow you to utilize it (like: value, monetary systems, economic systems, how money relates to mathematical concepts and so on,) all you are left with is a pile of paper.

    I teach a concrete skill - painting - but before my students put one dab of paint to canvas, they have to take 2-dimensional design; where they learn concepts that help them effectively utilize the visual language.

    Otherwise, they are merely craftsmen using a learned physical skill, and not artists.

  10. Very well put. To me it seems that things are coming around full circle. There once was a time when survival meant watching cycles of nature, identifying and following the food supply, constantly adapting and re-adapting to changing circumstance. For so long most of what has taken place in society has been in exactly the opposite direction. Control the food, control the elements, build safe "everything" so you no longer have to really think about what is going on. What you described had the ring of going back to a more self-reliant, nomadic existance. The hardest part of all of this will be getting past step 6, having the capacity to act. While, theoretically, each individual may have the technical capacity to "act",it is going to take real courage in some situations to reach the stage where one has the willingness to act, and the faith to stay the course. We have spent so much time developing policies and procedures in order to shield ourselves from having to make decisions that it is going to take some time to undo it; this seems to be especially true in education. At some point, people in organizations will realize that such policy/procedure was not handed down from some celestial being on high, but written by other humans, most likely by humans who could not have forseen all the situations the policies were intended to address. (-Drucker paraphrase). Fortunately, I think, (hope) things are changing rapidly enough that it is now possible for individuals to make that stand, and if the worst should happen, (I'm sorry, current policies do not allow us to consider that course of action...) ...not to worry, there are other opportunities to be pursued where such barriers do not exist. One can assume that at some point it will be considered normal, perhaps even wise to band together to redirect the log to shore, or at the very least get yourself to shore. I can't see it being considered a good strategy much longer to instead ride to the bottom of the water fall with everyone else where the best you can hope for is a good rescue team and medical assistance.

  11. This is great and, as the first commenter says, "like he said".

    This article came out earlier in the week and is toward the other end of the spectrum - but makes some interesting points. Particularly with regard to the historical perspective on education and learning:

  12. Just a great piece. Very much as one with my thinking - too often, we are conditioned to rely on facts and fail to use our greatest tool, the mind, to look critically and contextualise what we're doing.

    Things move far too rapidly today for us to continue to educate on a model designed to prodice compliant workers for 18th Century factories.

  13. I agree that 21st century skills provide a powerful operating system for the mind, and your argument is persuasive.

    However if you are discarding the idea that we also need a "base of knowledge", I disagree.

    The purpose of a "base of knowledge", in my view, is not to provide a foundation for skills acquisition - but to provide a foundation for values.

    Values are what give us the drive and purpose to use our skills. Without them we are simply mercenaries or critics.

    Humanity have had millennia to refine these values - but I'm still not sure we've made a great deal of improvement with all that time on our hands.

    Massive change - even in our lifetimes - is a reality, but when you put it on an evolutionary scale, and consider the relative stability of our biology (that provides the building blocks of how we act), there is still a lot we can learn from those who have gone before us.

    That said, deciding which facts should form the "common core" makes for a challenging discussion!

  14. Great Read Stephen. In Australia we now have a citizenship test for people to sit and pass before the state will deem them to be an Australian Citizen. The problem being that it simply asks people to memorise and recall historical events, persons etc. Your article is something our PM should read because if he still feels that prospective citizens should sit such a test than maybe he could look at facilitating the development of a skills based program. Atleast there would be scope for participants to acquire a series of skills that could be utlisied in a wide range of environments to achieve personal outcomes which as a byproduct can/would contribute to greater social change.

  15. Ideas that come to mind:

    >Names of things (universally accepted names)
    on the internet knowing names of things is powerful in and of itself
    (wikipedia for example, or personal information manager)
    >The internet is a constant (its existence)
    >Practicing math and knowing the correct answer without a teacher
    >Motivation to learn independently
    >educational games (in scientific topics)
    >people learn better from TV than a whiteboard
    > (ideas worth spreading)
    >home schooling
    >learning without a teacher (your computer is your teacher)
    >data search engine (rather than one that searches information)
    >Entertainment vs School
    >What we do in our spare time and why
    >Why we like what we do
    >Attention disorders and technology
    >Brain Repair, Stem Cells, regenerative factor
    >Brain repair>Coma cure>death cure

  16. Caspian, you write

    > The purpose of a "base of knowledge", in my view, is not to provide a foundation for skills acquisition - but to provide a foundation for values. Values are what give us the drive and purpose to use our skills. Without them we are simply mercenaries or critics.

    I can easily agree with you regarding the role of values.

    But if you are suggesting that values ought to be imprinted, taught as 'core skills', and internalized without critical reflection by a passive learner, then I reject your supposition.

    If anything needs to be the creation of an active, freely enquiring mind, it is values. Not simply because there is no agreement on what values ought to be fundamental (Christian? Hindu? Humanist?) but also because values are so important to what makes a person the way they are, and people ought to have enough agency in their lives to make such fundamental decisions for themselves.

  17. This is why schools are nothing more than FACTories for job position replacement parts.

    I recall reading on a forum about Japanese culture how American visitors to Japan were astonished to be asked completely ridiculous questions like "Does America have seasons?" This is because of the "facts" which were (still are) taught to young Japanese schoolchildren.

    They are told Japan is the only country which has seasons. Anyone with even a modicum of knowledge about geography and basic science would find such a statement embarrassingly stupid, but young children don't have this knowledge, and when they receive it later, their indoctrinated "facts" simply bypass it.

  18. this is extra longggg

  19. As somebody who has some experience in public education, I find it is difficult to teach students how to "think" when many teachers are afraid of any topic that would pull students (particularly high schoolers) into conversation and even debate. This topics are often off limits because administration and teachers are afraid they may be accused to trying to brainwash students into one way of thinking or another. We have many more restraints than many of the countries around the world, including Japan.
    This doesn't even take into consideration our level of expectation for each student. Japanese classrooms, for example, can raise the bar and allow students to fail. Unfortunately, we teach to the bottom sector in our society, instead of pushing the bar higher and higher for that segment of students who are achieving incredible levels in their academic studies.

  20. I agree mostly with all that had been said.

    You're telling in some sense that book should become "obsolete" because they only relate facts without questionning them.

    But You could be wrong on that: what about books whose principle is to question. Phylosophical books are not only facts, but can be read no as fact but as "Software".
    Even more, not only "Software" but "Frameworks".

    And I believe frameworks are good for critical thinking.

    Nonetheless, this article is simply G.R.E.A.T.
    Thanks for it.

  21. This is a great post. You mention

    "why is a common core necessary for the teaching of skills, and why is testing of that core necessary."

    Testing of skills or rather the necessity of testing is something I have been thinking about from some time.

    I keep on getting this feeling that there has to be a better way than formal testing to certify a student (or help her learn).

    A digital portfolio on which anyone can comment and endorse may be one.

    When you say "why is a common core necessary for the teaching of skills, and why is testing of that core necessary." - are there any alternative means of certification that you have thought of r have experimented with?

    Thanks for the post.


  22. Very good indeed keep up the good work

  23. This essay raises a really big question. How do you define facts versus skills?
    For example, you give driving as an example of a skill and say that at a certain point it would be impossible to drive if our "knowledge of how to drive depended on a set of facts". But, well, I can't see how someone could drive if they didn't know facts like which pedal is the accelerator and which the brake, and that the steering wheel is connected to the wheels. And if someone doesn't know which side of the road people drive on in the country they're in, they might be able to drive in a technical sense but they're heading for a likely disaster. (And of course this merely scrapes the surface of facts we need to know to drive).

    So it strikes me that driving is an activity and a skill that is dependent on facts.

    You also say that now we need "a new skill, a way to access the facts you need from an ocean of facts". But how can this skill exist independently of facts? For example, I can Google something. But to do that I need to know that Google exists, and how I can access Google, and I also need to know something about what I am googling. Aren't these facts I need to know in order to be able to use this "new skill" of accessing more facts from an ocean of facts?

    A third example is that you say that "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.". But in this whole essay, you are calling on a vast range of facts, for example about driving, about computers, about how the world has changed now. If we don't need facts in order to evaluate and learn, how come you are using facts so much in this essay?

    Presumably you already know this issues that I've pointed out. And this may explain the difference between you and the opposition to the "21st century skills" movement, if they're thinking of facts as things like "people drive on the right in North America and on the left in Britain" and "If you want to search for a phrase on Google you need to surround it with double quotemarks", while you have quite a different definition of facts in mind.

  24. Tracy, I respond to your question here:

    (Apparently Blogger comments are now limited to 4096 characters - I would change this here if I could, Google/ Blogger has no business telling me how long my comments can be)

  25. People wonder "What's going to be different in the 21st century" and this post makes it clear that some things *will* change for the better.
    1. This echoes the difference between Instructionist and Constructionist learning and will have to be the basis of any education reform.
    2. Saliency may be the most important skill in intelligence - human or artificial.
    3. I discuss how Intuitive Understanding (not Logical Reasoning) is used in everyday mundane situations that "require intelligence" and claim that ignorance of this distinction and misdirected emphasis on Reductionist Models, Instructionism, Essentialism, Logic, and Reasoning are the main reason we don't have Artificial Intelligence yet at and at .

  26. Facts & Skills is an incomplete set.

    This is not all or even primarily what one needs to learn in either formal or informal education.

    The primary is concepts. Maybe Conceptual frameworks if you want to abstract more.

    As far as I can tell this is the point of DI. That's why they focus on vocabulary, because its a proxy for concepts. It is not to teach facts, facts are taught as instances so that one can get the pattern and form the concept.

    If you are teaching the child the concept Red, the point of showing them a series of non-red and red things is not so that now have a bunch of Facts about the things you show them, its so they can form the concept red and apply it to every other red thing they see.

    Steve is right in a lot of the details of his argument against facts. Yes you can use associative memory to teach kids the list of states and capitals. And this is totally useless except as a parlor trick. Yes some education is about that. Beat up on that all you want.

    But this has nothing to do with learning facts like 2+2=4. Or the sound the letter s makes. These are facts that build into skills. Skills are an accumulation of related facts (not all or most of which have to be verbal).

    Also the idea that one needs to read Hilbert be educated on 2+2=4 is hard to understand. Does this mean that no one before Hilbert or since who hasn't read him doesn't know 2+2=4?? 2+2=4 is understandable in the 2-6 range, I am pretty optimistic but even I don't expect my six year old to read Hilbert. We are still working through Euler and next is Gauss give the kid a break.

  27. > The primary is concepts.

    No, the primary is not concepts. It is not some sort of thing that propositional knowledge (propositions, sentences, words, facts) can be an instance of.

  28. Why?

    A artist may have visual concepts for which they have no words, a dancer movement ones. Words will naturaly arise when communication and thinking requires them, but in many cases they will follow the concepts not lead them. So not all concepts will require propositions , but all proposition will require concepts.

  29. Representation, even if we lack the means of communicating it, has a propositional form. Thus, everything that can be perceived is, in this discussion, propositional knowledge. All concepts are propositions, because they are represented somehow that is perceivable within ourselves.

    However, a random proposition does not have a concept behind it, merely an effort to generate it. Another way to say that is, I don't have to try to say anything specific while saying something random.

  30. Rob, I think we need to look more closely at what you mean by 'concept'. If you could not use the word 'concept', how would you describe what you have in mind?

    Steven, it sounds like you've been reading your Jerry Fodor. But the claim that "Representation, even if we lack the means of communicating it, has a propositional form" is a very contentious claim, and not at all, in my view, supported by the evidence.

  31. Logical deduction, and possibly a misuse of terms. To be honest, that sentence was bothering me the whole time I was writing that comment for potential miscommunication. Simply put, I meant that anything that can be represented has a form that can be offered to others, even if the individual doesn't have the means of doing so.

    Now I shall go look up who this Jerry Fodor is, cause I've never heard of the guy.

  32. Hmmm... That was a little strange. I'm not sure what I think about Jerry Fodor's ideas, but I might have a better way to say what I meant. If you can think it, there is at least one propositional form, whether you know of it or not.

  33. "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." I resonate with your ideas on this.
    I think one of the challenges we face could be: we are just entering this era of 21st century, and due to the complexity of technology, culture and society, are we able to have a taxonomy of those skills? Would those skills be context and culture specific? Would those skills be individually based, in order to maintain autonomy, freedom to live with our dignity and identity? I reckon Dr Deming once said: " Survival is not mandatory". Would skill of adaptation be important for survival and in order to thrive? In times of constant flux, are we going to rely on Darwin or ourselves to evolve as valued homosapiens? Being a Catholic, I reckon the development of spiritual skills would balance development of reasoning skills. Would that help? May be a matter of interpretation.
    Thanks for your inspiring post.

  34. Masterly post, and a perfect riposte to the current instrumentalization of education currently in vogue in much of the Western world.

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