Things You Really Need to Learn
By Stephen Downes
August 30, 2006
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 emails, 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 genuine feeling 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 domain of 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.
6. How to communicate clearly
Communicating clearly is most of all a matter of knowing what you want to say, and then employing some simple tools in order to say it. Probably the hardest part of this is knowing what you want to say. But it is better to spend time being sure you understand what you mean than to write a bunch of stuff trying to make it more or less clear.
Knowing what to say is often a matter of structure. Professional writers employ a small set of fairly standard structures. For example, some writers prefer articles (or even whole books!) consisting of a list of points, like this article. Another structure, often called ‘pyramid style’, is employed by journalists – the entire story is told in the first paragraph, and each paragraph thereafter offers less and less important details.
Inside this overall structure, writers provide arguments, explanations, descriptions or definitions, sometimes in combination. Each of these has a distinctive structure. An argument, for example, will have a conclusion, a point the writer wants you to believe. The conclusion will be supported by a set of premises. Linking the premises and the conclusion will be a set of indicators. The word ‘therefore’, for example, points to the conclusion.
Learning to write clearly is a matter of learning about the tools, and then practice in their application. Probably the best way to learn how to structure your writing is to learn how to give speeches without notes. This will force you to employ a clear structure (one you can remember!) and to keep it straightforward. I have written more on this, and also, check out Keith Spicer’s book, Winging It.
Additionally, master the tools the professionals use. Learn the structure of arguments, explanations, descriptions and definitions. Learn the indicator words used to help readers navigate those structures. Master basic grammar, so your sentences are unambiguous. Information on all of these can be found online.
Then practice your writing every day. A good way to practice is to join a student or volunteer newspaper – writing with a team, for an audience, against a deadline. It will force you to work more quickly, which is useful, because it is faster to write clearly than to write poorly.. If no newspaper exists, create one, or start up a news blog.
7. How to Learn
Your brain consists of billions of neural cells that are connected to each other. To learn is essentially to form sets of those connections. Your brain is always learning, whether you are studying mathematics or staring at the sky, because these connections are always forming. The difference in what you learn lies in how you learn.
When you learn, you are trying to create patterns of connectivity in your brain. You are trying to connect neurons together, and to strengthen that connection. This is accomplished by repeating sets of behaviours or experiences. Learning is a matter of practice and repetition.
Thus, when learning anything – from ‘2+2=4’ to the principles of quantum mechanics – you need to repeat it over and over, in order to grow this neural connection. Sometimes people learn by repeating the words aloud – this form of rote learning was popular not so long ago. Taking notes when someone talks is also good, because you hear it once, and then repeat it when you write it down.
Think about learning how to throw a baseball. Someone can explain everything about it, and you can understand all of that, but you still have to throw the ball several thousand times before you get good at it. You have to grow your neural connections in just the same way you grow your muscles.
Some people think of learning as remembering sets of facts. It can be that, sometimes, but learning is more like recognition than remembering. Because you are trying to build networks of neural cells, it is better to learn a connected whole rather than unconnected parts, where the connected whole you are learning in one domain has the same pattern as a connected whole you already know in another domain. Learning in one domain, then, becomes a matter of recognizing that pattern.
Sometimes the patterns we use are very artificial, as in ‘every good boy deserves fudge’ (the sentence helps us remember musical notes). In other cases, and more usefully, the pattern is related to the laws of nature, logical or mathematical principles, the flow of history, how something works as a whole, or something like that. Drawing pictures often helps people find patterns (which is why mind-maps andconcept maps are popular).
Indeed, you should view the study of mathematics, history, science and mechanics as the study ofarchetypes, basic patterns that you will recognize over and over. But this means that, when you study these disciplines, you should be asking, “what is the pattern” (and not merely “what are the facts”). And asking this question will actually make these disciplines easier to learn.
Learning to learn is the same as learning anything else. It takes practice. You should try to learn something every day – a random word in the dictionary, or a random Wikipedia entry. When learning this item, do not simply learn it in isolation, but look for patterns – does it fit into a pattern you already know? Is it a type of thing you have seen before? Embed this word or concept into your existing knowledge by using it in some way – write a blog post containing it, or draw a picture explaining it.
Think, always, about how you are learning and what you are learning at any given moment. Remember, you are always learning – which means you need to ask, what are you learning when you are watching television, going shopping, driving the car, playing baseball? What sorts of patterns are being created? What sorts of patterns are being reinforced? How can you take control of this process?
8. How to stay healthy
As a matter of practical consideration, the maintenance of your health involves two major components: minimizing exposure to disease or toxins, and maintenance of the physical body.
Minimizing exposure to disease and toxins is mostly a matter of cleanliness and order. Simple things – like keeping the wood alcohol in the garage, and not the kitchen cupboard – minimize the risk of accidental poisoning. Cleaning cooking surfaces and cooking food completely reduces the risk of bacterial contamination. Washing your hands regularly prevents transmission of human borne viruses and diseases.
In a similar manner, some of the hot-button issues in education today are essentially issues about how to warn against exposure to diseases and toxins. In a nutshell: if you have physical intercourse with another person you are facilitating the transmission of disease, so wear protection. Activities such as drinking, eating fatty foods, smoking, and taking drugs are essentially the introduction of toxins into your system, so do it in moderation, and where the toxins are significant, don’t do it at all.
Personal maintenance is probably even more important, as the major threats to health are generally those related to physical deterioration. The subjects of proper nutrition and proper exercise should be learned and practiced. Even if you do not become a health freak (and who does?) it is nonetheless useful to know what foods and types of actions are beneficial, and to create a habit of eating good foods and practicing beneficial actions.
Every day, seek to be active in some way – cycle to work or school, walk a mile, play a sport, or exercise. In addition, every day, seek to eat at least one meal that is ‘good for you’, that consists of protein and minerals (like meat and vegetables, or soy and fruit). If your school is not facilitating proper exercise and nutrition, demand them! You can’t learn anything if you’re sick and hungry! Otherwise, seek to establish an alternative program of your own, to be employed at noonhours.
Finally, remember: you never have to justify protecting your own life and health. If you do not want to do something because you think it is unsafe, then it is your absolute right to refuse to do it. The consequences – any consequences – are better than giving in on this.
9. How to value yourself
It is perhaps cynical to say that society is a giant conspiracy to get you to feel badly about yourself, but it wouldn’t be completely inaccurate either. Advertisers make you feel badly so you’ll buy their product, politicians make you feel incapable so you’ll depend on their policies and programs, even your friends and acquaintances may seek to make you doubt yourself in order to seek an edge in a competition.
You can have all the knowledge and skills in the world, but they are meaningless if you do not feel personally empowered to use them; it’s like owning a Lamborghini and not having a driver’s license. It looks shiny in the driveway, but you’re not really getting any value out of it unless you take it out for a spin.
Valuing yourself is partially a matter of personal development, and partially a matter of choice. In order to value yourself, you need to feel you are worth valuing. In fact, you are worth valuing, but it often helps to prove it to yourself by attaining some objective, learning some skill, or earning some distinction. And in order to value yourself, you have to say “I am valuable.”
This is an important point. How we think about ourselves is as much a matter of learning as anything else. If somebody tells you that you are worthless over and over, and if you do nothing to counteract that, then you will come to believe you are worthless, because that’s how your neural connections will form. But if you repeat, and believe, and behave in such a way as to say to yourself over and over, I am valuable, then that’s what you will come to believe.
What is it to value yourself? It’s actually many things. For example, it’s the belief that you are good enough to have an opinion, have a voice, and have a say, that your contributions do matter. It’s the belief that you are capable, that you can learn to do new things and to be creative. It is your ability to be independent, and to not rely on some particular person or institution for personal well-being, andautonomous, capable of making your own decisions and living your live in your own way.
All of these things are yours by right. But they will never be given to you. You have to take them, by actually believing in yourself (no matter what anyone says) and by actually being autonomous.
Your school doesn’t have a class in this (and may even be actively trying to undermine your autonomy and self-esteem; watch out for this). So you have to take charge of your own sense of self-worth.
Do it every day.. Tell yourself that you are smart, you are cool, you are strong, you are good, and whatever else you want to be. Say it out loud, in the morning – hidden in the noise of the shower, if need be, but say it. Then, practice these attributes. Be smart by (say) solving a crossword puzzle. Becool by making your own fashion statement. Be strong by doing something you said to yourself you were going to do. Be good by doing a good deed. And every time you do it, remind yourself that you have, in fact, done it.
10. How to live meaningfully
This is probably the hardest thing of all to learn, and the least taught.
Living meaningfully is actually a combination of several things. It is, in one sense, your dedication to some purpose or goal. But it is also your sense of appreciation and dedication to the here and now. And finally, it is the realization that your place in the world, your meaningfulness, is something you must create for yourself.
Too many people live for no reason at all. They seek to make more and more money, or they seek to make themselves famous, or to become powerful, and whether or not they attain these objectives, they find their lives empty and meaningless. This is because they have confused means and ends – money, fame and power are things people seek in order to do what is worth doing.
What is worth doing? That is up to you to decide. I have chosen to dedicate my life to helping people obtain an education. Others seek to cure diseases, to explore space, to worship God, to raise a family, to design cars, or to attain enlightenment.
If you don’t decide what is worth doing, someone will decide for you, and at some point in your life you will realize that you haven’t done what is worth doing at all. So spend some time, today, thinking about what is worth doing. You can change your mind tomorrow. But begin, at least, to guide yourselfsomewhere.
The second thing is sometimes thought of as ‘living in the moment’. It is essentially an understanding that you control your thoughts. Your thoughts have no power over you; the only thing that matters at all is this present moment. If you think about something – some hope, some failure, some fear – that thought cannot hurt you, and you choose how much or how little to trust that thought.
Another aspect of this is the following: what you are doing right now is the thing that you most want to do. Now you may be thinking, “No way! I’d rather be on Malibu Beach!” But if you really wanted to be on Malibu Beach, you’d be there.. The reason you are not is because you have chosen other priorities in your life – to your family, to your job, to your country.
When you realize you have the power to choose what you are doing, you realize you have the power to choose the consequences. Which means that consequences – even bad consequences – are for the most part a matter of choice.
That said, this understanding is very liberating. Think about it, as a reader – what it means is that what I most wanted to do with my time right now is to write this article so that you – yes, you – would read it. And even more amazingly, I know, as a writer, that the thing you most want to do right now, even more than you want to be in Malibu, is to read my words. It makes me want to write something meaningful – and it gives me a way to put meaning into my life.