Monday, December 21, 2009

An Operating System for the Mind

I have gone back to read this post by Stephen Downes several times recently as I have found it very influential. Downes article looks into the arguments used by opponents of 21st century skills, those who maintain you must teach core knowledge first as it is necessary for the further acquisition of skills. He picks apart these arguments piece by piece.

Facts can be learnt merely through repetition, memorization and so on. Downes argues that most education today involves the teaching of facts and then testing for recall of these facts. Of course teaching facts is important as you need to know facts in order to do things. However Downes maintains that facts learned through this direct instruction are programmed directly into the mind. Students taught in this way don't question these facts, therefore there is no critical thinking or reflection.

The problem with this is that there are more facts in the world than any single person could know, therefore the important thing is to be able to find facts that you do not already know. Also, over time facts change, therefore we need to be able to learn - to change our current knowledge. In doing this we need to be able to filter out irrelevant facts, concentrating only on what is important. To do this we need to be able to select and assess the facts and act on them. This is the basis of 21st century skills and as the need for these skills increases, the need for facts decreases. Downes states:
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.
Downes argues that 21st century skills are an operating system for the mind. If we just rely on facts the sooner or later progress will become impossible as we will be unable to extend our knowledge. Skills, however, let us navigate a fact-filled landscape, acquiring and understanding the facts that are relevant and useful and allowing us to make our own decisions. Even more important, facts should be questioned - children should not have unquestioned truths implanted into their minds. He argues:
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.

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