Enabling Skills

There are a number of generic cognitive skills that are not linked to any particular job or occupation, but which lie at the heart (or should) of what we do in our work. There are basic skills and higher-order skills, both of which we need to reach our fullest potential.

The basic skills are deemed important enough that we, as a society, put a high value on individuals learning these skills. Reading, writing, and basic numeracy are highly valued and we put a lot of our resources into ensuring that every member of our society is taught these skills.

If we look at reading as an example of a fundamental cognitive skill, reading is not about a set of facts that need to be memorized and regurgitated in order for it to be useful. Reading is a skill that is taught, continuously used, and improved upon throughout our lives. Writing and numeracy fit into the same category. Fundamental cognitive skills that we value and use the resources of our society to teach.

There are a couple of other fundamental skills that we learn to a very basic level of literacy, but don’t often follow up with any kind or formal learning opportunities. I think of logic and rational thinking as two of them. We must develop some basic level of both of these skills in order to communicate with each other.

Logic provides us with ‘rules of engagement’ with each other. When we communicate with each other, we have a set of rules that we follow. We use basic logic from an early age. We present arguments that are used to convince someone else to accept that what we are arguing is true, usually with evidence (either verifiable or non-verifiable). An example would be a young child trying to convince their mother to give them a snack. They want something to eat (an argument) backed by the vital evidence (non-verifiable) that they are hungry. Mother then has to decide whether or not to accept the argument as true and how to respond.

A response to a logical argument presented by a four-year-old in order to obtain a snack can demonstrate another fundamental skill that we don’t spend a lot of time or energy teaching, and that is rational thinking. Often the response to a logical treatise espoused by the four-year-old might not be the response that they want to hear. “Have an apple” may not be the response being sought by their logical appeal when there is a full cookie jar within arms reach. The lack of rationality then often manifests itself as a logical fallacy – “I hate you because you are mean” – clearly an ad hominem attack designed to use an irrational response in order to sway the argument. After all, who wants to be hated by their own children?

Rationality develops (usually) as a child matures. Rationality involves the consideration of evidence that has been logically presented in order to provide an appropriate response. We all know people for whom even this level of rational thought is elusive. It is the development of clear or high-level rational thinking that can be greatly expedited with formal teaching. Most developmentalists agree that higher level thinking skills don’t just happen but must be learned in either a supported or non-supported way.

The primary failure for most rational discourse comes with the veracity of what might be considered evidence. “I am hungry” may be a non-verifiable piece of evidence, but can be generally accepted as reliable evidence for a logical argument by most people. However, hearing about a friend who was abducted by aliens is rejected by virtually every (rational) individual who might be presented with the statement as a primary source of evidence in support of an argument. The skill that should, and needs to be taught as a way to ascertain the reliability of evidence is the skill of critical evaluation.

Critical evaluation is an important enabling skill that is not taught in a robust, systematic way for most of the population. Although there will be those who argue that this is a core part of the curriculum for every secondary school child, the evidence (after critical evaluation) clearly demonstrates that this is not the case. The use of ‘Fake News’ as evidence to support arguments clearly shows us that critical evaluation is an enabling skill that is not taught, or if it is, it is taught poorly and learned even worse. Critical evaluation is not a skill that leads directly to a job, as so many demand of education, but it is a skill that makes someone who has it more valuable to society, and (presumably) more valuable to an organization.

Another skill that does not prepare people with a direct job pathway is critical thinking. Critical thinking is the most effective method of solving problems. Critical thinking problem-solving works through a systematic approach that relies on a set of sub-skills to reach a solution. One of the critical skills needed for critical thinking is the critical analysis of evidence. Critical thinking is rarely taught in higher education (where it should be) because of the need to teach content in college or university courses along with the demand of parents, employers, and other stakeholders for a narrow focus on specific job skills. Critical thinking is not a specific job skill in the same way that reading is not a specific job skill. Both are enabling skills, providing people with tools to work with information and knowledge.

Reasoning is another enabling skill that is understood at a very basic way without any teaching, but in order to fully appreciate reason, it must be learned, ideally with the formal support of a teacher. There are at least two forms that reason takes – inductive and deductive reasoning. Inductive reasoning is drawing conclusions based on the best available evidence; size three handprints on the surface of the chocolate cake, size three prints in dark brown on the wall next to the cake, and dark chocolate icing around the mouth and on the hands (and shirt, pants, feet, and in the hair) of the size three child in the vicinity. The theory, not absolute proof, but a theory based on the best available evidence, is that the size three child found at the scene of the defaced cake is responsible for the cake defacement. Drawing conclusions based on the specific evidence found through careful observation is called inductive reasoning.

Complex inductive reasoning is less intuitive or straightforward than the basic inductive reasoning that is acquired at a young age. Often the links between the evidence is more difficult to observe, and expert assessment and knowledge of a field is often required in order to reach the conclusion. In the age we live in, information is ubiquitous and so expertise is not needed – I have access to the same information that you do. What is missing is the ability to engage in complex reasoning.

The other type of reasoning that is less intuitive than inductive reasoning, but important, nonetheless, is hypothetico-deductive reasoning. This is the kind of reasoning that means you start with a theory and predict specific probable outcomes based on the theory. As an example, I would predict (based on prior experience) that an extremely seductively presented chocolate cake left in a place that is easily accessible to a three-year-old will likely result in a defaced, and less than seductively looking (although with no detectable loss in the quality of the taste) cake. Deductive reasoning is predicting a possible (or probable) outcome based on a theory.

Complex reasoning skills are enabling skills that provide people with ways to understand and use sophisticated and complex information. Not direct skills that lead to a specific job, but like reading, cognitive skills that provide the user with ways to understand and use information in ways that make them valuable to society and organizations.

Neither of these higher order reasoning skills are widely understood or used and this means that information about many complex phenomenon can be and are used to manipulate people. If these reasoning skills are lacking, complex arguments that rely on either kind of complex reasoning cannot be followed and people have to rely on a trusted source to provide them with an explanation that can be followed and understood. The blatant manipulation of scientific findings for ideological or commercial ends has led to a serious mistrust of scientists and their work. Don’t send a scientist out to explain to the public what they have found. Scientists don’t understand that if a person lacks complex reasoning skills, they are simply speaking a foreign language to them.

In addition to these skills I have listed, there are other enabling cognitive skills as well that, literally, changes how people think but do not have a high enough value in our society for us to expend the resources that would equip the population with skills that you allow them to better navigate the world we live in. More importantly, as algorithms are written that read, write, crunch numbers and carry out most of the basic cognitive skills that we do learn, being equipped with these higher order thinking skills that enable us to better understand and use information becomes ever more important.

As we progress through the painful transition into the post-fourth industrial revolution world, these skills will come to define our value to society. Just as illiterate individuals are currently devalued in our society today, so to will be those who fail to develop these higher level enabling skills be devalued tomorrow.

Now is the time to learn the enabling skills that have not been taught. Businesses and organizations that fail to value and embrace the development of these skills within their employees will find themselves marginalized and disappearing, not in the next ten years, but in the next (very) few years. Cling to the past and we’ll fondly remember your livery stable or photographic film producing company.

Embrace the changes because tomorrow is here and the promise of tomorrow is (or can be) a time of unparalleled prosperity and happiness for those organizations or individuals who are valued by society.

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