Thursday, December 27, 2012

Are We Teaching Obsolete Skills?

This blog post is about education yet it has to do with technology in many ways. The issue at hand is the current educational system and the wrong focus we place on teaching obsolete skills.

Indeed, most of our education is wasted on learning the hard skills like calculus and memorizing the formulas for amino acids. Sure those skills are probably critical to those of us who go on to become mathematicians or chemical scientists but that’s only a very few of us. On the other hand, all of us need almost daily more of the soft skills such as effective communication, public speaking, negotiation and leadership. With a few exceptions, these skills are not taught today on any level of education.

Every engineer needs to know how to use one of these, right?
It’s ironic, if you ask me. We get all this education to be able to live more prosperous lives yet prosperity rarely comes from spelling or algebra. Prosperity usually comes from the ability to sell yourself, negotiate a decent salary and communicate well about what you have accomplished. Sure, you need to know some spelling and algebra to avoid looking like an idiot but we should accept the fact that most of us work in front of a computer all day long. That computer provides plenty of assistance for spelling and multiplication. However, the computer can’t take over conflict resolution, problem analysis or financial planning. Yet we all need those skills every day!

By the way, how is our current education doing at teaching us to use that computer? Well, not that great. In fact, most knowledge workers are expected to learn those skills along the way while doing homework. The results are knowledge workers with no concept of data structure, drowning in information overflow, and in general, suffering from some degree of technophobia. Today, the basics of PowerPoint design are much more marketable skills than calculus.

I watch my children learning their spelling and multiplication everyday - years of hard training that should be reduced by half. Technology is changing the learning needs and yet our learning system is adapting way too slowly. Nobody is teaching how to use an abacus or a slide rule anymore even though those skills were considered essential some 50 years ago. Yet our kids spend years learning to write in cursive which nobody uses anymore.

Russian abacus.
There is a difference in education between the continents today. Europe and particularly Asia are putting even more emphasis on the hard skills, producing brilliant engineers who struggle to land a job. America is at least a small step ahead in teaching the soft skills. In general, Americans appear to be much more at ease at public speaking than their European or Asian counterparts. Guess what, the US educational system teaches this soft skill from kindergarten starting with “show-and-tell” - something that European kids rarely do.

As much as America’s worried about losing its edge on the international scene, at least its educational system is a little more relevant. No wonder that American universities are always among some of the most prestigious in the world. Clearly, teaching soft skills is not just an American challenge and other countries might face it even more.

My point is that we are teaching skills today, that were relevant back in the 1950s. Or, back in the 1850s. Our education system has to keep up with the technical innovation of the present time. In fact, to be truly effective, we should be teaching a curriculum now that will be relevant when our kids actually enter the workforce. Today, they start their first jobs with academic skills that are irrelevant to actually do that job!

Images: Wikipedia Creative Commons and public domain.


  1. There is no question that education frequently lags behind changes in technology and skills needed to enter those fields. But the purpose of teaching things like algebra and calculus is not because everyone will use them in life, but to introduce them to students who can evaluate them and perhaps go on to use them in mathematics. Much of what we teach are to expose children to many facets and subjects that could enable them to go on to valuable careers. Even as a student I questioned the value of algebra and never used it in my entire life. But my brother thrived on it and excelled in these areas throughout his career.

    Communications, public speaking, leadership were taught in my high school in the 1960s. Have they been discontinued?

    Spelling is essential, not sure why you think it's not important. Spell-check goes only so far. And if you wish to be a leader, knowing how to spell is crucial.

    No question that education should adapt to present-day needs, but we should want more than vocational training. Music and art are essential too. But how many of us use these in every day life?

    1. Thank you for commenting, Larry. I'm not arguing against any particular skill but I am questioning the balance and the time at which we get introduced to any skill in a particular depth. That balance is not reflective of today's work requirements.