Literacy verses Operacy

by Edward de Bono in New Zealand
22nd June 1998

The Millennium Conference is now under way. For details please see below. Some input will still be included in my weekly message but the bulk – including comments and contributions – will be published in the special conference area.

Last week I suggested beginning with a look at education since that is generally accepted as the basis of society.

I have not done a full survey or review of education systems around the world so the views I express are based on personal experience. I would say that all education systems I have had contact with are a disgrace and a disaster. How can that be? The reason is that education is a locked-in and self-complacent system. No matter how motivated and excellent individuals may be, and there are many such talented people in education, change is virtually impossible.

There are two important and apparently contradictory principles:

  1. Everything now taught in education has a high value.
  2. Most of what is taught in schools is of very little value to the students or to society.

In the European Union something like 25 per cent of schooling time is spent on mathematics. Yet 90 per cent of those leaving school probably use less than 3 per cent of what they have learned in the mathematics lessons. When did you last use algebra, trigonometry, set theory or calculus?

So why do we spend so much time teaching this amount of mathematics?

  1. Because it trains the mind. There is no evidence for this at all. If we were really concerned with training the mind we could spend a fraction of this time directly teaching thinking – with far more relevance to the lives of ordinary people. For example, something like 90 per cent of mistakes in everyday thinking are mistakes of perception. Mathematics can do very little about this.
  2. Because mathematics is required for many careers in science, engineering and technology. True, but do we need to train a hundred people so that four can undertake such careers? Surely, it would make more sense to teach the relevant skills as part of such professional training.
  3. Because mathematics was there before. This is the real reason. Everyone knows the value of mathematics so no one dare attack the huge amount of time spent on mathematics.
  4. Because teachers, examinations and the curriculum lock us into the matematics requirements.

The last two reasons are the real reasons.

  1. Mathematics has a high value. So does every other subject taught in education. But time is limited in education. There may be subjects that have an even higher value. Let me mention just three.
  2. Basic constructive thinking skills. This is the most important subject of all – virtually never taught. This subject helps youngsters get on with their own lives and also to contribute to society. Is that not a disgrace?
  3. Understanding “Value creation in society”. This again is a key subject. Is it not a disgrace that youngsters leave school knowing about the War of the Roses but have no idea as to how business works?
  4. “Operacy” and the skills of doing. The notion that it is enough to “know” is both absurd and dangerous. Research has shown that youngsters who pursued hobbies did much better in life – because they has some experience of operacy. I believe that half the time devoted to sports should be devoted to hobbies and “operacy” projects.

Communication, interpersonal and group skills. Also very important.

All these things are so very obvious. Why are they not happening?

  1. Because there are no exams in such subjects and the subjects are not on any curriculum.
  2. Because there are no teachers to teach such subjects.
  3. Because universities set school leaving examinations and universities are out of touch with the real needs of society.
  4. Because change attracts criticism.

When Charlemagne was the greatest leader in Europe, he could not read or write. It was the role of scribes and notaries to look after the reading and writing activity. Education developed around teaching such necessary skills to scribes and notaries. That is the direct heritage of education. Education has expanded in two ways. It expanded to mass education for all. Education also sought to make available all human knowledge.

Add to this a fatal dominance by (and obsession with) the Greek Gang of Three and we have our current education system.

At the top end we have indeed made some progress – mainly in science and technology. But at lower levels we have made virtually no progress at all. That is why I used the rather strong terms of disgrace and disaster.

If teaching basic thinking skills to illiterate workers (platinum miners in South Africa*) can reduce grievances from 210 a month to 4 a month – then the ideas I suggest above are not only possible but they are incredibly powerful.

© McQuaig Group 1998

The above piece may be re-published in any magazine, newspaper or journal provided that it is not altered and the copyright line is given.


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