A View to a Skill

March 22, 2021

Friend1 Ashish recently2 blogged about a conversation we had about essential skills that everybody ought to have by the time they finished school. Ashish made such a magnificent thesis out of what was me essentially backlashing at a backlash that I now feel embarassed about not making my own expansive post out of an offhand chat. This is that post.

Context and Caveats

Back in January, the backlash against Byju’s Whitehat Jr was in full swing. The perverse contrarian that I am, I perfunctorily agreed with the meat of the backlash – that it seemed to be a money-grabbing scam preying off the paranoia of Indian parents – but then spent far more time on the nitpick of “But coding is awesome, actually.” I then tied it in to my long running rant, which goes as follows:

Every time there’s a social panic, the government decides to address it by bringing the topic of outrage, be it malnutrition, violence against women, or lack of patriotism, into the school syllabus. Textbooks are hastily updated, and CBSE Class X exams throw in a two mark question about the topic in question. Five years later, students have treated the topic with all the contempt a mere two mark question engenders, and forgotten all about it.

And then, tying it to my personal experience of what I actually do remember from my own school and university days, and use to this day, I came up with an overarching theory of how we would all be better served if schools focused far more on teaching skills than on teaching complexes of knowledge. After all, I reasoned, we forget facts, but skills persist. We can also look up facts any time, but the sooner we learn skills, the more time we have to deploy them and to get better at them. And since it was a lovely Saturday morning, and I had a notebook and pen handy while I had my morning coffee, I soon had my list of skills that everybody ought to have, and which as a corollary, were too important to be left to elective courses.

I’ll come to the list itself in a bit, but first a caveat. Once my initial feelings of grandeur wore off, I realised the problem in my premise. Yes, I personally retain skills much more easily than I retain facts. But that might just be me, and might not be universally true – and therefore not necessarily a reason to fundamentally overhaul Indian education as we know it3.

But with that caveat expressed, I feel that making, and sharing, our personal lists of essential skills is a fun exercise, and maybe even a useful one. Ashish has already shared his. Here’s mine.

Things Everybody Should Be Able to Do

  1. Close-read a book.
  2. Skilfully take notes about that book.
  3. Skilfully take notes not about a book, but about an unfolding project.
  4. Write a clear report, summary, and / or letter.
  5. Sketch. If given a piece of paper and pencils; and either a photo reference or a scene in front of them, they should be able to draw something that’s at least recognisable as the original.
  6. At the other end of skill with pencils, engineering drawing. At least up to being able to come up with the plan, elevation, profile, and angle views (what was the name for that again? See what I mean about retaining skills but not facts?)
  7. Maths: being able to integrate and differentiate functions.
  8. Statistics: apart from the usual mean, median, and mode; and linear regressions; I’d like people to be able to identify clusters and data anomalies. I confess, though, I have no clue on how you would actually measure or test for that.
  9. Electrical wiring: being able to give an appliance a new plug, swap plug points and switches in and out of switch boxes, and change light fittings.
  10. How to use household tools: Putting a nail into a wall4, assembling and disassembling furniture, and knowing how to mix and apply paint.
  11. How to use kitchen tools: given a selection of vegetables, can you cut slices, cut cubes, grate them, and mince them? If you eat meat, can you do the same to that? Can you make a meal out of a multitude of ingredients such that not one of them is either undercooked or overcooked5?
  12. Double entry accounting. I learned this in 2004. I only started using it outside of accounting tests for my own personal finances in 2019. It changed my life.
  13. Coding had to make an appearance at some point. But, as with everything else here, I don’t propose getting too deep into the details. Being able to work your way around with basic if-thens, loops, and data structures is good enough.

That perverse contrarianism I mentioned earlier? Let’s end the list there, so that it’s an unlucky thirteen.

What I Left Out

A couple of days after shooting this list off to Ashish, I looked upon it more soberly and realised that there are skills that I respect but I never included.

The first one is being able to drive a car. And after giving it some thought I maintain that I might as well go on leaving it off, because:

  1. It’s not like cars are affordable enough that everybody in India will need to know how to drive them.
  2. The true skills gap isn’t knowing how to drive, it’s knowing how to behave respectfully in traffic.
  3. I continue to dream of a future of widespread and high quality public transport and / or self-driving cars, and wanting everybody to be able to drive feels like a surrender.

Apart from that, the things I left out fall in an odd space of “I really hope these are skills because that means you can learn them. But I realise that this might just be wishful thinking and that I could be falling foul of Diax’s rake, and in my second thoughts, I decide that I might just be jinxing things or exposing my naivete by listing them down. So I’m putting them down below, in their own section.

  1. Bullshit Detection: There’s a whole online course on how to detect bullshit, so maybe it is a skill, and hopefully it’s a skill that can be acquired in childhood itself. On the other hand, maybe presenting it as an acquirable skill is itself an example of bullshit. Sigh.
  2. Empathy: there are lots of people claiming that empathy is a skill that can be learned. I really hope they’re right, and I really fear that they’re being wishful thinkers.
  3. Imagination: You could go the Paul Bloom way, and claim that the socially beneficial attribute is not empathy, but imagination. His title is at least a little clickbaity, and his argument depends a lot on dropping a tight, not generally accepted definition on a loosely used word. But that aside, imagination is an attribute worth possessing even if it doesn’t bring about the beneficial outcomes usually associated with empathy. Is it a skill? I dunno.
  4. Since we’ve gone all the way to imagination, I might as well bring in my pet obsession – can we teach the capacity for narrative?

Conclusion and Invitation

Well, there’s no conclusion, really. But I do invite you to bring back the golden age of blogging, and use the comments to share your own lists. Better yet, use your blogs to share your own lists.

Drawings for 7 August, 2020

August 8, 2020

The first drawing is one that I’d started outlining on the previous day; and then left to finish the next day because I had to leave early for work. It was based on this reference photo:

home, by Gerben of the lake

This is what I made:

I think I’m so spooked with drawing either human faces or anything where perspective is needed, that I use lighter, less confident pencil strokes. It’s not just scanner settings.

Here, too, the proportions / perspective are off from the photo. But I think I was more confident drawing the Buddha statue than the background.

I’ve now realised that when it comes to drawing faces, drawing the Buddha again and again is probably a great way to learn and get better. The Buddha’s face is serene, unlined, and symmetrical – and it’s a great way to build up to drawing more complicated, wrinkly, tilted faces. I think I’ll be drawing one Buddha face a week for the near future.

I also did another drawing completely from scratch, based on this photo:

Leopard, by Geert

This is what I did:

The depth I tried to show in the ears hasn’t really come through in the scan, but it could have been a little better even in the drawing. Overall, I’m really happy with what I’ve done here. There is room for improvement, but those feel like minor faults and not insurmountable ones.

Just like with the cat drawing from earlier in the week, I can’t quite get the whiskers right.

But I think that this shows that I’m best, and most confident, at drawing felines, regardless of species.

Drawing for 6 August, 2020

August 8, 2020

Wifi problems again. I went back to a really old favourite, from back in 2006 when I first started using flickr. This one:

Suddenly. – Mariana Hummell.

This is what I drew:

I had tried to draw the full reflection, as it is in the photo. But trying to get it to the similar light, translucent image as in the reference image meant that despite my best attempts to tweak settings, the scanner just didn’t pick it up. And in the drawing of the model herself, the blacks have become much darker as a result.

There’s a smile in the eyes of the original photo that I haven’t been able to capture at all. But this is better than my recent drawings of human beings. And I think it’s crossed a threshold, and is now mediocre rather than awful.

Drawing for 5 August, 2020

August 8, 2020

For whatever reason, on the morning of the 5th, my wifi was acting up, so instead of go through the Flickr explore page, I picked an old favourite. This one:

In Explore - Five Pigeons and a huge Seagull - Lizzie is just looking
Five Pigeons and a Huge Seagull, by DizzieMizzieLizzie

And this is what I drew:

I’ve made the left eye a little higher than the right eye, and the whiskers are also off in a way I can’t quite understand. But I’m happy that I’ve got the depth right – even better than the previous day’s baboon. And I’m also proud of myself for using different pencil grades to show the cat’s eyes, the shadow on the left side of her face, and the mouth.

Drawing for 4 August, 2020

August 8, 2020

I decided to continue with animals, but a more challenging animal than an elephant. Flickr explore had this wonderful photo of a baboon:

Don't Look Back In Anger
Don’t Look Back in Anger, by Michael Hoffmann

This is what I made:

I did most of the hair by lightly shading with a 2H pencil, and the darker patches by adding HB or 2B shading over that. Unfortunately, my scanner hasn’t quite picked up the lighter hair.

The face lines are also not as naturalistic as they should be.

But overall, I’m happy with what I’ve done here. I think this is one of my first drawings where I’ve managed to show the depth in a face properly.

I said when I started that I didn’t want to be good, I just wanted to stop being terrible, and I think I’ve managed that in this drawing.

Drawing for 3 August, 2020

August 8, 2020

After the demoralising Sunday, I wanted to go back to drawing animals.

My not-yet-two year old nephew loves elephants, so I’d been thinking for a while that I should learn to draw them realistically. Happily, Flickr explore in the previous week had an elephant photo that I saved for later:

Taken in Uganda
(by kathleen EVERITT)

I was still demoralised, so I did only the elephant, and not the background buffalo or trees.

It still seems a little cartoony – I’m not too sure how to get the wrinkles just right.

Drawings for 2 August, 2020

August 8, 2020

After taking a break on Friday and Saturday, I wanted to use my Sunday to make up for the missing days and make up for the drawings from earlier in the week that I wasn’t happy with.

I decided to continue “Draw something you’ve been watching” with a Youtube video that’s been making me giggle – a live action reproduction of the “Busted” song from Phineas and Ferb:

I was pleased with my improvement on human figures after drawing the Twelfth Doctor, so I ambitiously decided I wanted to draw the split screen shot of Candace and Vanessa pointing out of the screen.

Turns out I was overambitious:

I was so unhappy with how the proportions were working out that I gave up in disgust and tried to do something else – rework my Twelfth Doctor drawing, where I was unhappy with the proportions of the hands.

That didn’t work out great either:

I think that this time around, his hands and face are in better proportion to his body (though still not a perfect reproduction), but I’ve lost all the detail of the face. In my first attempt I was grumbling that I’d made the Doctor look like Wolverine – now he looks like Constantine. Blech. This, too, I abandoned rather than spend time trying to erase and redo the face.

In despair, I did one last drawing, with a flickr reference. This had both human hands, which had been frustrating me all week, and a bird, which I felt would restore my confidence. Unfortunately, the flickr user removed the photo.

It’s not a perfect reproduction, but I’m happy that I’ve done a little better with the hands, and that the Sunday wasn’t a complete failure.

Drawing for 30 July, 2020

August 8, 2020

Continuing with “Draw a character from television,” I decided to draw Devi Vishwakumar from Never Have I Ever.

I used the still of Devi praying as a reference image.

This is what I managed to do:

And I’m still terrible at human faces. Groan.

I think I’m going to spend this weekend on youtube tutorials of how to draw faces.

Drawing for 29 July, 2020

July 30, 2020

Continuing with ‘draw someone from TV I’m watching,’ I decided to draw Peter Capaldi as the Twelfth Doctor, and used this as the reference photo:

And this is what I drew:

The Good: I’m happy with the nose and the lines on his face. The bad: I think I’m way off on the proportions and didn’t realise that Capaldi is both tall and has an extra long face. I’ve squashed both his torso and his face, and now he looks like Wolverine.

Also, his hands. It looks like he’s got dwarfism. Groan.

And the eyebrows aren’t the exact raised eyebrows that the photo has, but Peter Capaldi’s eyebrows are so unique that I’m willing to give myself a pass on those.

I feel that my shading of shadows has become a little bit better in this.

Drawing for 28 July, 2020

July 29, 2020

Continuing with “Draw somebody from TV I’ve been watching” week, I drew Chihiro from Spirited Away, using this as the reference image:

From the Studio Ghibli fandom wiki

This is my reproduction – only Chihiro, no background:

Today I don’t want to talk about my own drawing so much as express gushing admiration for the original. Reproducing it was easy because there aren’t that many elements in the original. But with such few elements, the Ghibli animators were able to bring across an entire face, its expressions, and make it look real enough that my brain completely accepted it as a real person going through horror. I hope I can become that skilled one day.