21st-century skills: Downes’s OS for the mind

Stephen Downes recently posted a detailed essay on “21st century skills,” An Operating System for the Mind. He’s asking whether and why a common core of knowledge is necessary, and whether students ought to be tested on that core.

Downes is thorough–copied into Word, the post comes to eight single-spaced pages. I wanted to read it and follow what he’s saying, which explains this post. If things aren’t clear here, blame me.  Then, read Stephen’s original for yourself.

The bottom line: while factual knowledge is helpful, certain key skills are essential; they are a kind of operating system for the mind, which can then work with data from the outside world.

What’s at the core?

Fact stackBy “core knowledge,” he’s talking about a body or collection of things that provide the basics in a given field (e.g., you “need to know about bones to study medicine”).  He’s not saying you can’t teach (or learn) facts; learning facts is “the great shortcut in human development.”  And in order to do anything, you need to know stuff.

The question is, why these specific facts? In other words, is there a common core?

Downes says that facts learned as facts (like the multiplication tables) are a kind of direct programming, the sort of thing that remains unquestioned.  And, frankly, facts aren’t enough.

It’s not just the facts, ma’am

Here’s my summary of his six main reasons that an education based strictly and solely on facts is insufficient:

  • Too many facts: you can’t learn them all, so you have to know how to find them.
  • Facts aren’t fixed: things change, and we need to learn, to “change the previously existing state of our knowledge.”
  • Some facts matter more: we have to select and filter so that we can decide what facts are important to ourselves and to others.
  • Calling something a fact doesn’t make it one: we need to compare and assess things presented as facts.  (For example, I have no interest whatsoever in any “facts” proving that the earth is less than 10,000 years old.)
  • Some facts invite acts: we need skills to decide whether the facts we have are something we should act on, and the sense that we can by acting create new facts.
  • Facts aren’t capabilities: Beyond seeing the possibility of acting, we need the ability to act.

The flip side of these insufficiences, for Downes, becomes a summary of so-called 21st-century skills.  I like that there’s nothing about multi-tasking or hardware infrastructure or evolutionary changes to the brain in them.  They’re stated in more general terms, and could have applied a century ago.

So what’s different?

President Kennedy said at a 1962 dinner for Nobel laureates:

I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.

But that was 47 years ago, and 28 years before the world’s first web server.  We’ve got more facts and less static facts all the time.  (Remember how science “knew” that stomach ulcers were caused by stress?)  Beyond knowing what’s new and what’s changed, we have to cast a wider net.  Here Comes Everybody is not just a book title–it’s a new form of input.

Persona, a facet of the personalityDownes argues we also have new types of knowledge and skill, and that more of us need to use them every day.  (Baby Boomers are sometimes uneasy when they read “email is for old people.”)

Consider also the skills needed to manage just your professional presence and reputation.  That used to be done almost exclusively on paper and in person.  Now you’ve got networking sites, blogs, personal domains, avatars… your “online self” is a sort of conceptual clown car, with all sorts of characters inside.  Good thing we have so many more ways to do that.

Downes says, in part, that the role of facts is decreasing as the need for dynamic skill increases:

People need such greater capacities in literacy, learning, prioritizing, evaluation, planning and acting.

Facts: they don’t compute

Downes has an extended, useful comparison between these skills and the way we use computers.  To vastly oversimplify, other than its operating system, a computer doesn’t know anything.  (I tend to say it’s dumb as a rock but fast as hell.)  “If we had…programmed into [the computer] the knowledge of finances, literature, and mathematics, it would have been a less useful computer.”

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.

…which is why Downes sees 21st-century skills as an operating system for the mind.

What the new operating system does

These skills enable us to navigate, to see, to understand, and to make our own decisions.  More important, says Downes, they change how we see facts.

To me, this is like the old view of the atom as an indivisible particle.  A fact is a thing, it’s true, it’s “real.”  Downes argues that “our relation with facts is much more contingent than previously supposed.”  (His italics.)

  • Facts are not independent of how they’re expressed. Literacy means reading the lines, and between the lines, but also “reading faces, photos, ideas, omens, and portents.”
  • Facts change. That’s a fact.  The earth isn’t the center of the universe.  Solid rock isn’t solid.

belongs anywhere
even the
Rocky Mountains
are still
— George Bowering

  • Some facts are salient, some aren’t. There’s no one set of facts that’s important to everyone.
  • You can learn to tell fact from non-fact. Detecting deception (or, I think, error, or misrepresentation) is a skill, Downes says, “and you need just as much as your computer needs to be able to detect malware.”
  • You’ve gotta decide. This point is key: decision-making isn’t rote performance, which means it’s not based solely on facts.
  • You need to act. That action depends on skill much more than on a big ol’ heap of fact.

To be a man is to be responsible: to be ashamed of miseries you did not cause; to be proud of your comrades’ victories; to be aware, when setting one stone, that you are building a world.

—Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

I’m skillful enough to let Downes finish for himself:

We still to a great degree treat facts as things and 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…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.

CC-licensed images:
Rolodex cards by mrbill;
facets of faces by Axel Bührmann.

5 thoughts on “21st-century skills: Downes’s OS for the mind

  1. Dave;
    I’ve been thinking around these ideas recently. Thanks for the prompt. I’ve related it to some of the folks of my past studies:
    1. Wittgenstein’s idea of deed before word or (said in another way); “the meaning of a word is its use”.
    2. Bakhtin’s idea that, because a word’s mean is linked to its use, it never has the exact same meaning twice, it always mean something a little bit different.
    3. An idea I got from studying Vygotsky, that knowledge is not for knowing, but for doing things.
    You can say that 3X3=9 is a fact, but its meaning is still derived from how it is used, and it becomes humanly important in what this statement allows us to do.
    So what does this mean. To me it signals that, rather then listing a core set of facts or even a core set of knowledges, we instead should ask, “What do people want to be able to do”? Still, just like in words, we never do the same things twice. (This is especially true regarding making assessments of what people can do. Here’s where the real devil is in the details) I think common core begins to breakdown by the teenage years. People just want to follow different directions.

  2. Howard,

    I’m glad you got prompted. And, scattered though my thoughts are here on the Whiteboard, I’m pretty sure you’ve made the first use of “Wittgenstein,” unless I’ve got him buried somewhere in the quote file.

    I suppose there’s some sense in which knowledge is for knowing, a sort of cerebral collector pattern. But it seems likelier to me that, no matter how obscure or how particular the items in the collection are, the choice (the activity that got them stored) originated mainly with the individual. The crux there, as the Bardie said in a different context, is “the moving Why they do it.”

    3 x 3 may be a low-level fact, but we know that in most human cultures, 123 x 987 is a higher-level one. It requires concepts and understandings that are part of engaging in the world.

    What I don’t know about is: okay, so facts as themselves aren’t essential–now what? I’m thinking of my children, who (fortunately for me) are grown. What would I do if they were all school age? Would I homeschool? Private school wouldn’t likely be a option. I have friends as well as colleagues I admire who do have young children, and so for them this isn’t (so to speak) academic.

    Working through Stephen’s article (and considering it in terms of other things I’ve read lately) has me thinking about cart-and-horse conceptions. I may mutter about this in a future post.

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