By Stephen Downes
Guy Kawasaki last week wrote an item describing ten things you should learn this school year,” in which readers were advised to learn how to write five-sentence e-mails, create PowerPoint slides, and survive boring meetings. It was, to my view, advice on how to be a business toady. My view is that people are worth more than that; that pleasing your boss should be the least of your concerns; and that genuine learning means something more than how to succeed in a business environment.
But what should you learn? Your school will try to teach you facts, which you’ll need to pass the test, but which are otherwise useless. In passing, you may learn some useful skills, like literacy, which you should cultivate. But Guy Kawasaki is right in at least this: schools won’t teach you the things you really need to learn in order to be successful, either in business (whether or not you choose to live life as a toady) or in life.
Here, then, is my list. This is, in my view, what you need to learn in order to be successful. Moreover, it is something you can start to learn this year, no matter what grade you’re in, no matter how old you are. I could obviously write much more on each of these topics. But take this as a starting point, follow the suggestions, and learn the rest for yourself. And to educators, I ask, if you are not teaching these things in your classes, why are you not?
1. HOW TO PREDICT CONSEQUENCES
The most common utterance at the scene of a disaster is, “I never thought…” The fact is, most people are very bad at predicting consequences, and schools never seem to think to teach them how to improve.
The prediction of consequences is part science, part mathematics, and part visualization. It is essentially the ability to create a mental model imaging the sequence of events that would follow, “what would likely happen if…?”
The danger in such situations is focusing on what you want to happen rather than what might happen instead. When preparing to jump across a gap, for example, you may visualize yourself landing on the other side. This is good; it leads to successful jumping. But you need also to visualize not landing on the other side. What would happen then? Have you even contemplated the likely outcome of a 40 meter fall?
This is where the math and science come in. You need to compare the current situation with your past experience and calculate the probabilities of different outcomes. If, for example, you are looking at a 5-meter gap, you should be asking, “How many times have I successfully jumped 5 meters? How many times have I failed?” If you don’t know, you should know enough to attempt a test jump over level ground.
People don’t think ahead. But while you are in school, you should always be taking the opportunity to ask yourself, “what will happen next?” Watch situations and interactions unfold in the environment around you and try to predict the outcome. Write down or blog your predictions. With practice, you will become expert at predicting consequences.
Even more interestingly, over time, you will begin to observe patterns and generalities, things that make consequences even easier to predict. Things fall, for example. Glass breaks. People get mad when you insult them. Hot things will be dropped. Dogs sometimes bite. The bus (or train) is sometimes late. These sorts of generalizations — often known as ‘common sense’ — will help you avoid unexpected, and sometimes damaging, consequences.
2. HOW TO READ
Oddly, by this I do not mean ‘literacy’ in the traditional sense, but rather, how to look at some text and to understand, in a deep way, what is being asserted (this also applies to audio and video, but grounding yourself in text will transfer relatively easily, if incompletely, to other domains).
The four major types of writing are: description, argument, explanation and definition. I have written about these elsewhere. You should learn to recognize these different types of writing by learning to watch for indicators or keywords.
Then, you should learn how sentences are joined together to form these types of writing. For example, an argument will have two major parts, a premise and a conclusion. The conclusion is the point the author is trying to make, and it should be identified with an indicator (such as the words ‘therefore’, ‘so’, or ‘consequently’, for example).
A lot of writing is fill — wasted words intended to make the author look good, to distract your attention, or to simply fill more space. Being able to cut through the crap and get straight to what is actually being said, without being distracted, is an important skill.
Though your school will never teach you this, find a basic book on informal logic (it will have a title like critical thinking or something like that). Look in the book for argument forms and indicator words (most of these books don’t cover the other three types of writing) and practice spotting these words in text and in what the teacher says in class. Every day, focus on a specific indicator word and watch how it is used in practice.
3. HOW TO DISTINGUISH TRUTH FROM FICTION
I have written extensively on this elsewhere, nonetheless, this remains an area schools to a large degree ignore. Sometimes I suspect it is because teachers feel their students must absorb knowledge uncritically; if they are questioning everything the teacher says they’ll never learn!
The first thing to learn is to actually question what you are told, what you read, and what you see on television. Do not simply accept what you are told. Always ask, how can you know that this is true? What evidence would lead you to believe that it is false?
I have written several things to help you with this, including my Guide to the Logical Fallacies, and my article on How to Evaluate Websites. These principles are more widely applicable. For example, when your boss says something to you, apply the same test. You may be surprised at how much your boss says to you that is simply not true!
Every day, subject at least one piece of information (a newspaper column, a blog post, a classroom lecture) to thorough scrutiny. Analyze each sentence, analyze every word, and ask yourself what you are expected to believe and how you are expected to feel. Then ask whether you have sufficient reason to believe and feel this way, or whether you are being manipulated.
4. HOW TO EMPATHIZE
Most people live in their own world, and for the most part, that’s OK. But it is important to at least recognize that there are other people, and that they live in their own world as well. This will save you from the error of assuming that everyone else is like you. And even more importantly, this will allow other people to become a surprising source of new knowledge and insight.
Part of this process involves seeing things through someone else’s eyes. A person may be, quite literally, in a different place. They might not see what you see, and may have seen things you didn’t see. Being able to understand how this change in perspective may change what they believe is important.
But even more significantly, you need to be able to imagine how other people feel. This mans that you have to create a mental model of the other person’s thoughts and feelings in your own mind, and to place yourself in that model. This is best done by imagining that you are the other person, and then placing yourself into a situation.
Probably the best way to learn how to do this is to study drama (by that I don’t mean studying Shakespeare, I mean learning how to act in plays). Sadly, schools don’t include this as part of the core curriculum. So instead, you will need to study subjects like religion and psychology. Schools don’t really include these either. So make sure you spend at least some time in different role-playing games (RPGs) every day and practice being someone else, with different beliefs and motivations.
When you are empathetic, you will begin to seek out and understand ways that help bridge the gap between you and other people. Being polite and considerate, for example, will become more important to you. You will be able to feel someone’s hurt if you are rude to them. In the same way, it will become more important to be honest, because you will begin to see how transparent your lies are, and how offensive it feels to be thought of as someone who is that easily fooled.
Empathy isn’t some sort of bargain. It isn’t the application of the Golden Rule. It is a genuinefeeling in yourself that operates in synch with the other person, a way of accessing their inner mental states through the sympathetic operation of your own mental states. You are polite because you feel bad when you are rude; you are honest because you feel offended when you lie.
You need to learn how to have this feeling, but once you have it, you will understand how empty your life was before you had it.
5. HOW TO BE CREATIVE
Everybody can be creative, and if you look at your own life you will discover that you are already creative in numerous ways. Humans have a natural capacity to be creative — that’s how our minds work — and with practice can become very good at it.
The trick is to understand how creativity works. Sometimes people think that creative ideas spring out of nothing (like the proverbial ‘blank page’ staring back at the writer) but creativity is in fact the result of using and manipulating your knowledge in certain ways.
Genuine creativity is almost always a response to something. This article, for example, was written in response to an article on the same subject that I thought was not well thought out. Creativity also arises in response to a specific problem: how to rescue a cat, how to cross a gap, how to hang laundry. So, in order to be creative, the first thing to do is to learn to look for problems to solve, things that merit a response, needs that need to be filled. This takes practice (try writing it down, or blogging it, every time you see a problem or need).
In addition, creativity involves a transfer of knowledge from one domain to another domain, and sometimes a manipulation of that knowledge. When you see a gap in real life, how did you cross a similar gap in an online game? Or, if you need to clean up battery acid, how did you get rid of excess acid in your stomach?
Creativity, in other words, often operates by metaphor, which means you need to learn how to find things in common between the current situation and other things you know. This is what is typically meant by ‘thinking outside the box’ — you want to go to outside the domainof the current problem. And the particular skill involved is pattern recognition. This skill is hard to learn, and requires a lot of practice, which is why creativity is hard.
But pattern recognition can be learned — it’s what you are doing when you say one song is similar to another, or when you are taking photographs of, say, flowers or fishing boats. The arts very often involve finding patterns in things, which is why, this year, you should devote some time every day to an art — music, photography, video, drawing, painting or poetry.