Monday, October 29, 2018

Skills vs. Content (Pt. 687,231)

You should know who Jack Ma Yun is. He's the Chinese combination of Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg (without the rich parents) who has been behind some of the most profitable internet start-ups in China (China Pages, Alibaba).

And like every other sentient being on the planet, he occasionally has some thoughts to share about education:

As you can see here, Jack comes down in the "Students don't need to know anything because they can just Google it camp." We should teach students soft skills, art and sports skills, skills skills skills that computers don't have. I haven't actually disagreed with a millionaire yet this week, so let me go ahead and explain why I think Jack is just plain wrong.

"A teacher should learn all the time." Okay, he's on solid ground there. That's about the last moment.

Ma doubles the usual "school hasn't changed in a century" and says we've been doing the same thing for 200 years-- knowledge based. But "we cannot teach our kids to compete with machines" because the machines are smarter. By which I think he means that machines have more information stored. But he wants to teach things on which computers cannot catch up.

Ma is asked what those skills are that we need to teach. "Values, believing, independent thinking, teamwork, care for others-- " these are the things knowledge doesn't teach you. So Ma says teach our kids sports, music, art-- everything we teach should be different from machines.

There's certainly some appeal in what he's saying. But. But but but but. How can you develop and apply values if you don't have any knowledge about the area that you are applying your values to? How do you even develop a value without any knowledge? How, for instance, do you arrive at a personal value about how humans should govern themselves if you don't know anything about the history of human government? How do you believe in things if you don't have knowledge? Yes, faith is a swell thing, but it doesn't develop in a vacuum. If you lack knowledge, you might be inclined to, say, believe anything a narcissistic demagogue tells you without ever realizing that he's lying through his teeth. How do you care for others if you don't know anything about them, their culture, the context in which they operate, how human beings have behaved throughout history? And what does your care mean if you response to "I have a disease that needs immediate treatment" is "I really care about you, so maybe we can google your disease" as if WebMD is as good as an actual doctor. How do you work with a team if you don't know anything? What exactly will you contribute to the team if you have no knowledge base or area of expertise-- will you just volunteer to be the one who types questions into the Google search bar? And finally (I saved this for last because it's the worst) how can you possibly be an independent thinker if you don't personally possess knowledge that you can think about? How can you sort through the sea of knowledge that the computers have and separate the good stuff from the baloney if you don't personally possess the knowledge base with which to evaluate what you find?

Smart people make this mistake all the time-- they have literally forgotten learning things and so assume that a certain baseline amount of knowledge just springs into the human mind fully formed, that it's just "common sense." Hell, a complaint I have heard from elementary teachers is that some Common Core math materials say you're supposed to focus on process and not do things like memorize the times tables-- but then give lessons to understand process that assume that, of course, the students know the times tables.

It's hard to accomplish much of anything, to develop or use any skills, if you don't know stuff. And if Ma's argument is that people need to know stuff, but schools don't need to teach it-- just tell the kids to go look it up-- well, that's been an option since the invention of printing, and yet, somehow, students have still needed live humans to help them through the process of knowing stuff.

This is one of those things that I feel as if I've said a million times, but which I will keep saying as long as it needs to be said--

Skills, even soft skills, do not exist in a vacuum. You cannot have skills without knowledge any more than you can build a house without lumber, any more than you can have waves without some medium through which the waves move, any more than you can learn to sculpt with no material except air. American slaveowners did not keep blacks enslaved by restricting skills-- they restricted knowledge. Life is harder for people who don't Know Things, and the fact that we can now know a lot more things with a lot less looking up effort hasn't changed that. I would say at this point we've collected evidence that people who don't know things have their ignorance actually worsened by technology.

Jack Ma Yun may be crazy rich, but on this point he's simply wrong.


  1. Things no adolescent can successfully do without a reasonably strong supply of background knowledge (including content specific vocabulary) stored in their long term memory banks:

    Comprehend what they read
    Write coherent, content based paragraphs
    Learn new and complex facts and ideas
    Be a curious person
    Be an interesting person
    Comprehend how many doors of opportunity remained closed to them
    Cash in on there knowledge and expertise
    Use Google intelligently

  2. I assume that it is self evident that not all the information found through google is useful or accurate. If that is true, where does one check that information?

  3. This is a superb discussion starter.

  4. Exactly - I have thought the same things many times - although I am nowhere as articulate as you are. If there is no knowledge base - you have nothing to think about.