It’s the ability to learn tools, not the tools themselves

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From: Mark Shuttleworths Blog

It’s the ability to learn tools, not the tools themselves

Wednesday, April 26th, 2006
One of the big debates we are having at the moment in the Foundation is all about how to design a curriculum to stimulate the development of analytical skills. The thing I care most about is that we focus not on the specific set of tools, but on the ability to learn and apply a current tool set.The truth is that we constantly acquire and discard sets of tools. So we should not be fixated on one specific set of tools for all of life. Society, technology and the times change so fast that any fact, process or algorithm we learn at school is by definition not going to be useful for any length of time. The real skills that serve us are the ability to adapt, learn, apply the products of that learning, and participate in the discussions and challenges of the day. That doesn’t mean that facts are useless, nor that specific tools don’t matter. Unless you can demonstrate an ability to absorb and apply both, fast, you haven’t actually gained the knack of becoming effective in a given environment.
I was thinking about the toolsets I’ve had to acquire over the past fifteen years since I left school.

In university you are solving the problem-du-jour as set by lecturers and tutors. Each year you learn a new set of theorems, axioms, rules, laws, analytical techniques, best practices, algorithms, formulae etc. And you have to learn how to make them dance for you so that you can do well in that year. Then, by and large, you file those away never to be used again, and learn new tools for the next year of study. Sometimes, the tools and laws and rules are additive, you build new knowledge on the old stuff. Sometimes, however, you just learn the tools because you need them to get through the year, and that strikes me as being makework. See my rant on the study of economics below.
In work, you’ll have to learn the tools of the trade or the company and how to get things done. If you’re a nutcase like me, you change your toolset entirely every few years – I spent two years consulting and training (late university and early Thawte), two years writing database-driven web applications for crypto and PKI services (later Thawte), a year studying ballistics and space vehicle operations (Star City and the ISS), two years learning cooking, dancing, and the intricate details of playboyhood, and now two years learning about how to build a distribution (Ubuntu), and how to build *big* web applications (Launchpad.net). In each of those phases the tools have been different. Its hard to know what kind of schooling could have made a meaningful impression on my ability to be a better cosmonaut – or a better programmer – or a better man of leisure.

And I’ve no idea what set of tools I’ll have to learn next.

My experience might be extreme, but for ALL of us life consists of a constant process of reinvention, learning and discovery. You are not doing the same job today that you were five years ago – the world is changing around you. the most successful people learn how to spot the best tools and trends and to take advantage of them. They also learn to LET THEM GO when the time is right. Rather than being convinced your tools are the One True Way, recognise that they are rocking good tools right now and will also certainly be obsolete within five years. That gives you an incentive to keep an eye out for the things you need to learn next.

Not everything that gets offered to you is likely to be of use. I hated economics at university because it epitomised the disposability of old knowledge. The problem was that first-year economics was basically a history lesson disguised as a science lesson. We learned one classical set of ways of looking at the world, and how to apply them to assess an economy. This was a bit like learning science circa 1252 and being told that you need to be able to draw up an alchemical recipe for lead-to-gold conversions that could pass for authentic in that era.

Then in second year they said luckily, the world has since decided that those ideas are utter crap, you can’t really manage an economy using them, but here’s a new set of ideas about economics. So we set about learning economics circa 1910, and being expected to reproduce the thinking of the Alan Greenspan’s of that era. The same people who orchestrated 1929-1935 and all the economic joy that brought the world. We knew when we were studying it that the knowledge was obsolete. And of course, when I looked into the things we were supposed to study in third year, fourth year and masters economics programs the pattern repeated itself.
There is some value in disposable knowledge. I like to hire guys who set out to learn a new programming language every year, as long as they are smart enough to stick to core tools for large scale productive work, and not to try and rewrite their worlds in the new language every year. The exercise of learning new API’s, new syntactical approaches, new styles is like jogging, it keeps you fit and energised. It’s useful even if aren’t a marathon runner by profession. But it should be kept in balance with everything else you have to do.

So, back to the topic of curriculum.

We want to create a curriculum that can:

  • be self taught, peer mentored, and effectively evaluated without expert supervision
  • provide tools for analysis that will be general useful across the range of disciplines being taught at any given age
  • be an exercise machine for analysis, process and synthesis

The idea is not that kids learn tools they use for the rest of their lives. That’s not realistic. I don’t use any specific theorems or other mathematics constructs from school today. They should learn tools which they use AT SCHOOL to develop a general ability to learn tools. That general ability – to break a complex problem into pieces, identify familiar patterns in the pieces, solve them using existing tools, and synthesise the results into a view or answer¦ that’s the skill of analysis, and that’s what we need to ensure kids graduate with.

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