A View to a Skill

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.

  1. Or as my wife would have it, friend-in-law
  2. More than a month ago, but recent enough on a cosmic scale
  3. Anyway, there are enough other reasons to fundamentally overhaul Indian education as we know it. The real problem is figuring out what to overhaul it to.
  4. If we could just normalise this to the point where landlords don’t think that it’s a form of dark magic that their tenants must never, ever perform, on pain of eviction; that alone would raise India’s Gross National Happiness substantially
  5. Death to One Pot One Shot. That is all.

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