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. Tht 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 ( 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.

27 Responses to “It’s the ability to learn tools, not the tools themselves”

  1. Tom Hoffman Says:

    In framing the question, does “a curriculum” equal a more or less traditional “course?” I mean, when I picture this, I see something more like Future Problem Solving (which did in middle school) or Urban Debate League (which we integrated across the curriculum at Feinstein High School). Not the competitive aspect of these programs per se, but the way they both center around a specific set of anyalytical tools and process, which remain the same from year to year. What varies is the topic or resolution you throw at it. The content changes from year to year, but everyone is working on the same problem at the same time, which gives you interesting possibilities for distributed web collaboration.

    Anyhow, while a more technological variant on one of these programs probably can’t comprise the entirety of a grade 6-12 curriculum, it could serve as the capstone for each year’s work, with much of the rest of the content providing scaffolding of the necessary skills. If you do have a well-defined capstone project, it is much easier to work backwards and design the curriculum and tools to support your end goals.

    It is also very important that students engaged in this curriculum produce work that can be meaningfully exhibited both to the local and online communities. That will be essential to getting buy-in from teachers and parents. If you create a structure where all the students are addressing aspects of one big problem, which varies for year to year, you could create really interesting culminating events that combine elements of a debate and a science fair, which I think would be really cool.

  2. Says:

    "Es la habilidad de usar herramientas, no las herramientas en sí"…

    Interesantísimo artículo de Mark Shuttleworth. Trata de que el aprendizaje constante de herramientas/habilidades es más importante que la herramienta/habilidad en sí misma. Los ejemplos son muy buenos. (En inglés)…

  3. - alter or abolish? » Blog Archive » Says:

    […] Mark Shuttleworth has written a nice little blog post about the tools we learn through life and how we discard old tools and learn new ones. […]

  4. AcenTiLLo Says:

    you are right

  5. Stefan Says:

    Hi Mark,

    great article!
    When you talk about ways to learn/adapt to new tools, I instantly thought of the python challenge [1]. Although it may not fulfill any? needs in the curriculum you mention, it’s imo still an interesting way to adapt to the python toolset.

    Stefan aka sistpoty


  6. Peter Rock Says:

    Mark finishes with:

    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.

    I agree completely. Well put. Something I had posted fairly recently which is related can be found here.

  7. bufalo_1973 Says:

    As Les Luthier sayd “I’m not totally unwhorthy. at least I am a bad example” (“No soy totalmente inútil, al menos sirvo de mal ejemplo”). And the same goes for old economics (and everything else). They aren’t unworthy, they teach how to NOT do things.

  8. skippy dot net » Learning Tools Says:

    […] It’s the ability to learn tools, not the tools themselves, says Mark Shuttleworth. I agree. […]

  9. Dean Shankle Says:

    Way back when I was a youngster (to read what some say those of us over 50 don’t know what a blog is… but I digress) we used to be taught such things as logic, diagramming sentences, astronomy, mathematics and music. It was argued that these disciplines taught students to recognize patterns, fallacies and structure in thought, ideas and the world around us. As part of this training, it was made clear that there was always more to strive for, more to learn, proofs not yet discovered, beautiful sounds not yet heard. In other words, these disciplines taught us how to think, not what to think.

    However, at some point these “liberal arts” dropped out of favor because they were a “waste of time” and didn’t help people get “real jobs”. If they were taught at all, it was in a “practical” context: “logic” was used to determine how people might think so you could sell something to them, “mathematics” was useful in that it was the foundation for computer science, and music… well, you might get lucky and end up on MTV. The “why-do-I-need-to-learn-algebra-I’ll-never-need-to-use-it” crowd won.

    Of course, I’m not longing for the “good old days” (I know better having been there :-)) but, in the context of searching for a “curriculum to stimulate a way to develop a set of analytical skills” taking a look back might help develop a path forward.

    (ps, re economics: My favorite quotes from my favorite economics professor was, “You have to remember, to an economist the real world is a special case.”

  10. Dinda Says:

    sabdfl wrote: “. . . two years learning cooking, dancing, and the intricate details of playboyhood. . . ” So the real challenge is to create the Mark Shuttlworth International School for Playboyhood!” 😉 I dare say not alot of Mums would support their sons’ tuition but you sure would garner alot of life long learners. lol – Not to mention the stiff competition for position of Head Mistress . . . but i digress. 😉

    In all seriousness, however, the debate is similar to one in thinking about crews for long duration space missions. The debate being over how much and which traits must be selected (the student/astro/cosmonaut must already have them within them) and those skills which can be taught. How does one teach someone to be adaptable? Almost like asking the question, “How does one prepare someone else for falling in love?” Some things must already be internal in the individual. The debate then seems to be, are you trying to reinvent schools/educational systems? or is the challenge to “simply” recreate learning opportunities? the latter I would argue would be easier.

    Building a curriculum is a similar process to creating a computer program (I’ve done a bit of both, more of the first.) You start backwards. What are the tasks or skills you want the student to achieve then build the instruction to support it. The instructional design process is where the puzzle of technology starts to become integrated as a tool set. “They also learn TO LET THEM GO.” wow – finally someone said it aloud – we need to recognize that much of what we teach/learn, needs to be put behind us. How many folks do you know using an old computer or software version b/c they are afraid to upgrade? (I just had a “debate” with someone using Microsoft Producer to create “online lessons” b/c that was the tool they knew and they refused to let go.) But again, I digress. . .I do have a question for anyone reading though.

    Is there any research or even better work of science fiction or fiction that truly viualizes the learning enviroment of the future? Most authors/movie makers tend to gloss over the subject entirely or even worse, I’m always saddened to see a futuristic classroom that still is based on the now hundred year old model of age-segregated desks all in neat rows, with the teacher at the front of the class. I consider myself creative but when I try to picture what classrooms of the year 2050 or 3000 might look like I find myself trapped by my own classroom experiences. What is different about those classrooms? Are they even classrooms any more? Okay, that’s more than one question but I find this topic fascinating. If you go back a hundred years and compare classrooms to today’s there is very little change. But if we go forward just a hundred years, what do you all see?

  11. Mike South Says:


    Personally, I think we need to get even bigger–we have to look at the environment, the attitudes of the people involved, many other things. But if you are just going to look at the curriculum (which is as good a thing to look at as any), I would attack it from this angle:

    1) people only learn what they are either (a) interested in learning or (b) forced to learn, and what they learn from (b) they will pretty quickly forget if they can. So your first goal, if you are trying to create a curriculum where people learn how to quickly adapt to a new set of tools, is to find a way to make adapting to new sets of tools interesting.

    Unfortunately, or, if you like hard problems, fortunately, everyone is different, and no matter what you do, it will spark the interest of one person and not the other. You probably need to have several very diverse options available and allow people to gravitate to the ones they like, or spend some time figuring out common denominators that practically everyone is interested in, or one project that will have aspects that everyone is interested in. (For example, produce a movie–some people will want to write, some act, some do special effects with computers, some build sets.)

    Once you have the setting figured out, you get the kids mentors, have someone really good at whatever the kid gravitated to show them the tricks of that particular trade. Our goal here is giving them at least one set of tools so they all have a frame of reference for what you are about to explain to them.

    Once a sufficient time has passed to allow them to develop some proficiency, you could do something artificial to give them a change of context, like put everyone’s job in a hat and let them draw out a different role, and make them pair up with another student who mastered that role and have them show the newbie the ropes.

    Then after everyone has had a chance to do this you talk to them about what made it hard to do the job at first, and what makes it easy once you’ve done it a while, and then point out to them that different jobs require different sets of tools. Describe how in life you are going to have to change contexts due to non-artificial things. You could lose your job, or get bored with what you are doing, or become a parent, or whatever, and in each of these situations you either choose or have thrust upon you a whole new set of challenges that require new sets of tools.

    Ooo–or, in the beginning, you set up the activity, and list the jobs that are to be done, and have everyone rank them from highest to lowest personal preference. Then, halfway through, you make people switch to the one they said they least wanted to do, and then you bring in the mentors to help them learn the new set of tools. Then they have the experience of a difficult context switch and perhaps that will show them the idea of how, whatever you have to do, there’s some set of tools to do the job with, and one of the biggest keys to success is figuring out what the tools are and how to use them.

    Here’s my basic philosophy on this–we learn to walk and talk before we are two. Most people never learn anything in their lives that is harder than either of those two things (e.g. algebra is less complicated than language, learning to play a sport is less difficult than learning to walk from scratch–we don’t think it’s hard because we’ve been doing it so long, but they really are hard things to learn).

    Why do we all (almost all) learn those things? We are immersed in an environment where we can take as small or as large a step forward as we want, and we have enthusiastic and very proficient mentors modeling correct behavior in a real context. More than that, though, every time we learn something new it is opening up something else to us, like when you learn the word for “walk” you can say it when you want to go for a walk, when you can say “cracker” you can get them a lot more often than you used to, etc.

    We learn very hard things (without anyone having to force us to learn them) because they are interesting, challenging, and full of intrinsic value to us. In my opinion, your first job is to figure out how to clear out all the pure cruft that fills current curricula, and replace it with the wonderfully interesting world that we live in, rather than the plastic parody of the world we show people in places like economics classes. Once you’ve got that, then you can do the very helpful thing of pointing out to people how the different things they get immersively interested in all have a different set of tools, and that they can probably pick up new things faster if they focus on figuring out what the tools are for the new thing and how to use them.

    Trying to get a bit more practical here, something you could try is having kids level up two characters with completely different professions in World of Warcraft, and then you can ask them to talk about the different sets of tools that each (simulated) profession uses. Then maybe you could have a setup where they have to try to apply that idea to the learning of one or two or three more professions, giving them (simulated) real-world experience now that you’ve pointed out to them the strategy of focusing on what the tools are. You need an environment that engages them and has enough depth to be challenging and really get them exploring the possibilities, or you will have lost them from the very beginning, no matter how good the theory behind the curriculum is.

    Gotta go. Thanks for a thought provoking post.


  12. rootbeer Says:

    I would agree that the tools themselves is just another facet in the context of fulfilling ones objectives. I have a feeking the a structured training methodology to teach this skill (a curriculum) is also just another facet of developing the ability to achieve ones objectives. If one has a clear vision and strong positive desire to do something I think you are half way there – it facilitates an open mind in that the focus stays on the desired result and that analysis and evaluation of suitability of a tool becomes easier (and obviously more fun!). The tools need not be concrete – with the “right” state of mind imagined tools become developed (with a base or from scratch), solving the particular “problem” better.

    With development in mind, and giving myself some slack on practicality and ceteris paribus (just kidding): Some sort of system that can simulate changing conditions based on what the user decides may help people get that insight into solving problems and give them more knowledge about how they go about solving problems – a rubiks cube on steriods is the only comparative I can come up with. The user performs an action and the system performs a reaction changing the conditions and features (context) of where the user finds himself in the system. A particular implementation of this could be a security learning tool where the operating system (which is the ultimate root and holds all the aces) initiates actions that would motivate a corrective or counter action by the user, etc. OK enough of that.

    From a school perspective starting with more complex models and then identifying the more core aspects (or perhaps the first aspects needed to understand the next set of aspects in the same model) you can progressively get a person to finally go through an entire model as the person becomes more accustomed to the particular behaviour within the model.

  13. Vuyiseka Says:

    It is true that the idea of teaching students hard skills for use in the marketplace seems to have worn the battle over teaching logic and analytical skills. The key question that curricula and education systems seem to be concerned with is: what are you going to be able to do with the education you have received?

    So, as a result education systems are designed to produce people with various industry related skills such as accounting, engeneering, teaching, programming etc. The outcome of this is that society ends up with people who can do what they are taught rather well, but are not able to think critically or analytically.

    Recent decades have seen the growth in popularity of approaches such as outcomes based education (OBE) and experiential learning as attempts to impart skills while at the same time encouraging the development of critical thinking and analytical skills. Students are expected to not just take what they are told by their teachers, but to critique, question, analyse and make up their own minds. The questions we should be asking therefore are – if OBE and other experiential teaching approaches are supposed to be so good, why are they not yielding the desired results? What is it that we are doing wrong?

    In terms of schools of the future and future students being self taught in virtual classrooms. I am also not able to speculate with any level of conviction. I however believe that with the current rate of technological advancement and children as young as 5 years old using cellphones and computer, anything is possible. After all, I strongly believe that schools where created more to socialise children into society than anything else – you only needs to think back at the level of conformity that was expected when you were at school to see that this is the case!

  14. David Says:

    “Is there any research or even better work of science fiction or fiction that truly viualizes the learning enviroment of the future?”

    I think there’s a good sci-fi book which treats this, but very much on the side. It is Diaspora, by Greg Egan. We’re talking serious far future though, but the idea is that children could learn things like analytical geometry by exploration, playing with 3d shapes and the like. They’d have a mentor that would direct their exploration, suggesting interesting avenues, doing socratic method kind of things, and so on, but most of the learning would be self-driven. I’m not sure this kind of experience is attainable with current tech though, and my suspension of disbelief has trouble believing that most children (of course some would) would find it interesting to discover geometric proofs by themselves.

  15. | blog Says:

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  16. Mike Miller Says:

    I love your philosophy and it happens to be mine as well … unfortunately the tech world doesn’t work this way.

    Try getting a job without 10 years of J2EE, or 5 years of RoR ;), or other BS these days.

    No, it doesn’t count if you’ve been doing the same thing with python and perl for 10 years … the ass-clowns doing the hiring don’t care.

  17. Drew Says:

    Nice article, the principles of which i agree with completely. The ability to abstract techniques from tools is vital to progressing in the world. However, i suspect that what is really being described is intelligence, which some believe to be inborn and not learned. Even if you point out explicitly to students that the specific thing they are learning is within a class of things that is general, most will have a hard time with it and some will never get beyond the specific. Unfortunately, this is all too clear in the physics classes i teach.

  18. DougHolton Says:

    You may not realize it but you are talking about transfer.

    Before you decide on having all students learn python for example, you might look at the decades of research on logo. Teaching programming like it is some form of latin that students need to know is going to fail. See an article by Koschmann for example:
    Python isn’t even designed with students or beginners in mind, unlike Squeak or Scratch.

    It doesn’t matter what toolset you choose for students, if you treat it as some canon to be memorized and internalized, it won’t work, it won’t transfer to other contexts and toolsets.

  19. Akkam’s Razor Says:

    […] Mark Shuttleworth » Blog Archive » It’s the ability to learn tools, not the tools themselves The difference between educating and training… (tags: education tools article economics) […]

  20. » It’s the ability to learn tools, not the tools themselves « marksdigital Says:

    […] Mark Shuttleworth has an interesting rant on why it’s the ability to learn tools, not the tools themselves that really matters. From the blog post: 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. […]

  21. Tim Clair Says:

    Your article reminded me of my long-standing argument that science education, from the very start, should be about teaching the scientific method (how science differs from other ways of thinking and acting) rather than about any of the specific results of the application of that method. These conditions may produce a population with a higher fraction of folks capable of understanding such things as 1. theory is more powerful than fact, 2. the value assigned to parsimony, and 3. theory is NOT the starting point of the method (that would be hypothesis) but rather it is the FINAL PRODUCT. This approach may eventually curtail the use of that most objectionable phrase, “just a theory”. That would be a giant step for improving the public understanding of science.

    Tim Clair
    Columbia, MD

  22. Rhonda Herle Says:

    Mark, I came across this website searching for thoughts and comments re: curriculum design. Wow, what a great site I’ve found.

    Not all of it relevant, but most of it beautifully written and thought provoking. I would like to quote your comment, “the ability to learn tools, not the tools themselves”. May I please. I am half way through a teaching qualification and am completing an assignment (well overdue). This has not been a topic yet raised and I believe it deserves many hours of classroom discussion.

    I tried to investigate the details of your copyright but to no avail. Please advise if this is ok with you.

    Many thanks for a pleasurable evenings read.

    Rhonda Herle
    Key Skills and Basic Skills Tutor for Guildford College, Surrey.

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  24. Nelson Castillo Says:

    Nice article. Learning new tools is crucial, and discarding them too.

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