Another dot in the blogosphere?

Lost skills?

Posted on: January 5, 2021

The latest podcast episode from the Pessimists Archive was Do We Lose Skills Because of Technology?

It was a bit of a squeaky wheel in that it repeated how technology evangelists might accuse technology luddites of romanticising old skills and bemoan new ones.

For example, there is somehow still a debate about how handwriting is better than typewriting on a laptop [prime example]. More recent research debunks that myth and research results differ depending on the nature of the questions students answer (factual vs conceptual) and how students take their notes (attempted verbatim vs reflective).

The latest podcast added some oil to the squeaky wheel by offering something more nuanced. Human skills evolve with time based on need, i.e., we adopt shifted skills.

We used to need to know how exactly to start a fire in the wild. Now we need to know how to control a thermostat, get the gas going, or know the difference between an induction and gas cooker.

We used to have to write relatively slow and deliberately with a fountain pen. Now we need to know how to tweet or blog effectively.

One other drop of oil was the discussion of specialist vs generalist skills. The podcast host suggested that many specialist skills could be replaced with robots and AI. I think he meant repetitive and routine skills like manufacturing, or more challenging and collective motor skills like controlling vehicles.

It is more difficult to lose generalist skills to robots and AI. These are the skills that cross disciplines, e.g., a plumber knowing not just how to change a pipe, but also about replacing structure (architecture) and applying knowledge of whether this was allowed (policy and law), and convincing/dissuading a client to do so (strategies of persuasion).

In the realm of education, I consider generalist skills to include metacognition and the ability to unlearn. These would require learners to have component skills of reflection and generation of strategies. Such skills are not just un-losable, they are critical for creating and embracing of even newer technologies that will challenge our skillsets.

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