It’s all skills all the way down

Freddie DeBoer sets up a false dichotomy between learning specific skills vs. learning “how to think”:

Individuals can navigate the markets, if they’re smart, privileged, and lucky. But great masses of people never can. If you’re telling me that you know what every freshman should start studying in 2014 so that s/he can get a good job in 2019, I think you’re full of it.

Instead, we should return to the point of what education has always been about: to teach students skills, yes, but only as part of a larger, more important goal of teaching them soft skills, meta-skills, and habits of mind that enable them to adapt to an endlessly-changing labor market. If you teach a kid how to use a particular kind of database or programming language, you might get them employed for five years, maybe ten. But if you teach them how to think, how to acquire skills themselves, how to be critical interpreters of information, and how to exist as compassionate and ethical members of a democratic society, you may empower them to keep themselves employed for 40 years. We could stop mistaking education as the process of one person giving information to others and rediscover education as a process of mentoring and apprenticeship where teachers work closely with students to develop not just specific skills but a mind that’s capable of acquiring more skills, and of understanding how and why skills become valued in the first place, and of forming moral choices about how these decisions drive society.

Now it’s true that no one can predict the job market even a few years out. But that doesn’t mean you downplay the necessity of acquiring specific skills or put them in competition with “habits of mind.” Oftentimes the best way to acquire these habits is to first develop a limited and particular skill-set. Consider the database example Freddie raised. I haven’t taken a single class on database design principles. But I’m now familiar with them after working in one database environment (MS SQL Server) over the past 2.5 years. I’ve been able to derive the general from the particular. My knowledge of SQL Server also helps me immensely when I have to navigate MySQL. The same goes with programming. Sure languages change all the time. But it’s much easier to adapt if you’re already familiar with several programming languages. I had never used MATLAB when I started my Ph.D.* I picked it up quickly because I had previous experience in C, C++, Fortran and Perl.

I guess you can call me a skeptic on critical thinking / habits of mind / learning how to learn. They’re very fuzzy concepts. If the academic debates on teaching “how to think” is anything similar to those in public science literacy, then I’m certain that there’s no widely agreed upon definition. I would gently challenge Freddie to list what exactly he wants to students to learn, and how he would asses whether they’ve learned it.

What does this have to do with creationists? Well I can’t count the number of times people I know are publicly bashed for lacking critical thinking skills or not knowing how to think. And yet they possess eminently useful, employable skills. Who cares how people think if they can navigate the job market and serve as productive members of society? In this topic at least I see too little weight given to skills and too much given to notions like “critical thinking” and “habits of mind.”

Rather than harp on difficult-to-define terms, we should recognize that everything is a skill. There are just different types of skills. Some are particular (a given programming language or database standard), some are more general (writing coherently, interpreting graphical data, project management) and some are soft (communication, leadership). But even general and soft skills are undergrid by smaller, more discrete skills that that can be taught, however imperfectly.

Take the soft skill of “reading a customer.” Some customers need a more hands-off approach while others need to be hand-held. Some want all the technical details and some will be annoyed at the word server. These are amorphous judgments for sure. To a certain degree you only learn to make them with practice. But there are still ways to gauge the situation: who was invited to the meeting, the initial questions asked, the information from the pre-sales and sales team, and so on. Even a soft skill like this can be decomposed into a set of particulars. And people do so all the time.

None of this is meant to oppose a liberal arts education. But I think Freddie places too much faith in abstract concepts while undervaluing the intrinsic reasons for subjects like literature and philosophy. They are indeed beautiful. They are an indelible part of the human experience. But those types of classes don’t teach you C++ or accounting. As unpredictable as job markets are, we still have no choice but to try teach concrete skills. If we don’t, only the smart, privileged and lucky students will make it. The great masses will not.

*Yes I know MATLAB is technically a scripting rather than programming language. Sue me.


  1. From an educational perspective (or, more honestly, my educational experience) DeBoer’s general thesis is true in practice. His example was a poor one which opened his argument up for critique, but his general idea is true in practice, and one can easily give an example that shows that.

    In computer science programming classes, even though you are taught the particulars of a language, many of these classes are actually teaching you computational thinking, data structures, algorithms, etc. And so, even though you move to another programming language you have been taught how to think computationally and it is not so difficult; you must simply learn how to express the same underlying concepts in the new language. [It’s a harder jump for a student to move from a course in which she learns a procedural programming language and then, on her own, jump to an object-oriented programming language because there are extra object-oriented concepts and object-oriented thinking that is missing.]

    So that’s why procedural programming language to procedural programming language or object-oriented programming language to object-oriented programming languages are poor examples. However, the concept is true.

    For instance, I can teach someone a language without actually teaching the person linguistics or how to learn a language. So that person who learned a language from ages 0 – 7 might still struggle learning any new language. This is an example to show that learning a particular skill does not always imply that you learn how to learn. And many students actually miss this. Some teachers teach how-to-learn while teaching a skill, some don’t. But the people at the greatest disadvantage in the world today are those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.

    In many parts of the world, people are not taught how to learn, they are taught to memorise. In most parts of the world, you are taught how to remember and apply but you never reach higher-level skills on a daily basis. These include analysis, evaluation, and creation. Many of spend so much time on behaviour we have very little time for the basics (remember, understanding, applying). Some of us spend so much time on the lower levels of learning that we don’t have time to teach higher levels of learning and how to learn. This might be due to the size of the class, the overwhelming variety of levels of understanding, skills, abilities, and disabilities represented in the classroom, the continuous assembly line nature of our industrial-revolution-style educational system which lacks mastery-based learning, and the lack of personalisation of education.

    None of this relates to your creation-science tension. Here my experience agrees with your thoughts. I’ve seen several people believe in some form of creation (there are many) and still have critical thinking skills.

    1. Thanks for the great comment Victor. I find myself in the strange position of disagreeing with you! First off: I agree that learning computational thinking is critically important. I would just submit you can’t really teach programming without also teaching computational thinking. I would even go a bit farther. Not only must you teach computational thinking, you’ll also inevitably teach specific techniques (e.g. linked lists) that also transfer.

      So for me the upshot is that ‘computational thinking’ is still a skill. And you can define it clearly, associate particular content, and assess it. I don’t believe we can say the same for the more generic “learning how to think.” (btw, loved your OOP vs. procedural language discussion. I was going to mention it myself but decided not to. So glad you raised it.)

      I agree that straight memorization is bad and that higher-level skills are important. But I wouldn’t reduce teaching skills to memorization. I guess this partly comes down to Steph’s point: we really need to define our terms.

  2. I guess the trouble with conversations about education (or really, any incredibly complex system with many interrelated moving parts- like how humans apply complex scientific ideas to their daily lives!), is that we may be saying the same thing without realizing it (or disagreeing without knowing why).

    To Victor’s example, I would argue that both learning to program and learning a language are best done with a combination of teaching both higher- and lower-level concepts. I would guess that it would be easier for a student who has gone through the process of learning a second language (a skill) to then take a course on linguistics (though this is also possibly a skill?), and that a course on linguistics is far harder for a student who has not first deliberately studied a language (even if it’s just the grammatical structure of English).

    For me, Bloom’s Taxonomy offers a great visual- we all want to teach our students to think critically about issues and offer alternative ideas and generate hypotheses, but this is difficult to do without first a foundation of lower-level skills.

    I completely agree that just teaching a student how to code C++ is not going to be sufficient for them to be employable in ten years. I was on-board with DeBoer’s idea until I read his call for teaching students “how to think.” Whenever I read that phrase, I get immediately turned off, because I no longer understand WHAT it is I am precisely expected to be teaching my students, and just as importantly, HOW I’ll know that I’ve successfully done so after the fact.

    When we start to get down to these specifics, I think we’ll realize they cannot be done (at least done EFFECTIVELY- accounting for things like student motivation, retention, etc.) without at least going hand-in-hand with teaching “skills.”

    1. Thanks for the comment Steph! I think you hit the nail on the head in your first paragraph. We really have to define our terms before engaging in this discussion. I like the word skills partly because it seems to me easier to define.

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