Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Skills vs Intellect

I can probably spend a long time writing an article with regards to our education system on whether it should focus on skills or intellect. But given the schedule I have, I should probably just jot down the key points in my head and let the debate continue here.

I have a major concern with regards to the trend of secondary and higher education in Malaysia today which is heading towards one more focused on skills and probably less on intellect. We see it today with the types of degree courses which are being offered by the private colleges, and closely followed by some of the public universities. In the extreme, we have degree programmes such as Animation, Event Management or even the "Internet". Note that by "intellect", I'm referring to everything relating to critical thinking, intelligence, resourcefulness as well as analytical skills.

At the same time, we hear these so-called "experts" in the market harping on the fact that the reason for the oft-quoted 60,000 unemployed graduates is a "skills mismatch". Hence it is unsurprising that candidates and school administrators alike start to look at "skills" as the key barometer in the determination of a good degree programme. As a result, the less tangible "intellect", a key output from a university education - and to me, the most important output - is pretty much neglected and forgotten. You will find our Ministers often calling for the Malaysian education system to inculcate greater "skills" in our students to "ensure" employability, but never about harnessing and strengthening "intellect".

As a result, my biggest concern will be the fact that many students, particularly top students, will be misled to choose courses which focuses on "skills" as opposed to strengthening "intellect". For instance, I interviewed a first class honours graduate from Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) just a few days back. She completed her degree in computer science specialising in Multimedia. One of her "regrets" was the fact that she thought the teaching of multimedia is "outdated" at because they actually have to build their multimedia programmes from scratch using basic programming languages such as 4GL. She and her friends "envied" the fact that students in many private colleges specialising in multimedia were "taught" to use the "latest" tools such as Macromedia Authorware and 3D Studio Max to complete their multimedia assignments.

I told her that her thinking is completely wrong for 2 simple reasons. Firstly, at UPM, whether by design or otherwise, the course has resulted in students having to utilise a larger proportion of their intellectual faculties (what I'll normally refer to as "brain exercise") as opposed to students who get to take the easy way out using Authorware or 3D Studio. There has also been a comment somewhere on this blog when a reader argued that with calculators, it's no longer practical nor necessary for students to understand and remember formulas - after all, what's the relevance of addition and substraction when I can just press a couple of keys in on the calculator which costs me less than RM10? Well, the reason is simple, yet often forgotten - the formal education which we receive is not about picking up "skills", it's about strengthening our intellectual capacity and critical thinking skills so that we will be able to pick up skills really fast when we actually commence our productive careers in the "real world".

Secondly, I told the candidate that their obsession with multimedia tools are misplaced. What is important is the understanding and application of multimedia concepts and not on learning how to use these tools when pursuing higher education. As an analogy, if I were to hire a journalist, it is based on whether he or she can write a good story and not whether he or she can use a word processing tool like Microsoft Word! Such tools can be picked up separately either as extra-curricular interest or even after one begins his or her career. For if one has a good foundation in the necessary concepts - whether in writing or in multimedia design, being skilled in such tools will be a piece of cake.

My recruitment philoshophy (which isn't shared by all employers, by the way) is to place "intellect" over experience, which is the default barometer for "skills". While many employers seek out experienced hires, some 80% of my recruits are fresh graduates or those with less than 2 years' experience. When often asked by the candidates, what are my key hiring criteria - my reply has been consistent for the past 7 years.
  • Firstly, the candidate must have a brain i.e., intellectually strong.

  • Secondly, the candidate must be able to learn really fast, as well as be willing to learn really fast. Some out there are unfortunately able to learn very fast, but not particularly willing to do so. While for some of the others, they are most willing to learn fast, but are unfortunately limited in their ability to do so.

  • And thirdly, the candidate must possess the necessary soft skills such as communication, attitude, presentation etc.
Experience and ready skills is an added but not overwhelming advantage for it is my belief (which has been proven many times) that with the necessary intellect and ability, the lack of knowledge and experience will be overcome within the shortest period of time. Having the necessary experience however without the underlying intellect will only give the candidate an initial headstart which will soon prove insufficient to move ahead once the juniors catch up.

Hence, my simple advice to secondary school students out there - have a serious think about the "skills" versus "intellect" dichotomy in our education system. Pick courses which will further enhance your intellectual strengths, critical thinking and analytical skills as opposed to those which focuses on learning specific "tools". This trend in our higher education system to focus excessively on skills is resulting in a change of definition of "universities" to become glamourised polytechnics.

Don't worry too much about skills and experience at this stage of your education. I'm not saying they are not important, except that they play only a secondary supporting role at this stage. I graduated from university with zero practical skills - hell, I didn't even know how to use a word processor properly until I started working!


Anonymous said...

so it is true...........

A pen is probably an oxonian's best friend.

Anonymous said...

Not surprised about the answer the first class honours graduate gave. My cousin at UKM says every year half the class gets first class. That's about 40-50 students on average per programme. The honour of being top 10% is now fading since 50% graduates with highest honours.

Anonymous said...

Tiara is right...

Aren't we missing something here these days for our children's educational experiences...

The old adage of a balanced lifestyle, namely the four aspects of life -- mental, spiritual, physical and social.

While maintaining a balanced lifestyle is an eventual journey, short term emphasis on mental aspect (eg. university students facing assignment datelines and examination) or any other aspect could not be avoided.

But still, for long journey of life, we need to balance our lifestyle from time to time..

Anonymous said...

I come across this many years ago.

Isnt that summarize the gist..

The Secret of Happiness in life:

Have some tasks on-hand to do;
Have someone to love; and
Have something to hope for.

Anonymous said...

What you mean by 'skills' are the 'how-to' ability. Like learning to do something, i.e actually doing it. 'Intellectual' ability i.e to analyze, to think critically, to predict or to apply are all skills too. They are cognitive skills. That is what lacking in Malaysian education. The system get student busy in the 'how-to' of doing things while not paying enough attention on the 'why', 'what if' of things. If you are familiar with Bloom Taxonomy' , google it, you'll find them. You'll realize our student are often ask to operate on the lower level of the taxonomy, some on the top by more of application type but less again on critical thinking and analysis. Let alone teaching metacognitive skills.

Anonymous said...

All work and no play make Jack a dull boy..

check this out..


Anonymous said...

I guess whether you have the intellect or skills or both, you are useful in some organization.

Whether you can grow further, that's another question. I always believe there are two categories: the book smart and the street smart. Some people are just book smart, some people are just street smart, some have both qualities.

The book smart normally end up as professionals.

The street smart normally end up in general business.

I always believe those who can excel in life have both.

John Lee said...

My economics lecturer told me something yesterday about her former students. When confronted in an exam with a question about cross-elasticity of demand (how the demand for a good responds to a change in price of another good), where they were specifically told to compare a particular set of goods (i.e. cars and petrol), they flunked out. Why? They used the stock answer from the lecturer's notes, word for word -- which used tea and coffee as the two goods concerned.

Nowadays schools are not teaching students skills, let alone preparing them to learn new ones. They're just drilling into students that there can be only one correct answer, presented in one specific manner. Totally irrelevant to the real world. Is it any wonder why we haven't produced any scientists of calibre? (It may be illustrative to read what Richard Feynman said about rote learning.)

clk said...

One of the most important discipline that I cannot find in any university both public and private in M'sia is western philosophy.

Philosophy is one discipline that covers thinking skills as we know it. With wide ranging thinking subjects such as logic, epistemology, mind, politics, religion, history, science etc. I doubt whether M'sian universities are daring enough to ever embark in offering this subject. Our NUS neighbour though does offer such program.

Anonymous said...

To johnleemk..

I think it is the onus of the students to equip themselves to become "more fluid" or flexible in their thinking.

I am sure no all students flunked out when such questions are given in exam. This lies down to one's adaptability in interviews or examination.

In real world, it is of low probability for two exact situation to reapprear, but similar situation might resurface.

Well, whatever it is, I would say to an extent formal schooling can give you that much.

Beyoud that one has to pick up from the surrounding by observing, mimicking, self-reflecting of do's and dont's, additional reading or input...etc. That's what we call acquiring street smarts.

I always feel street smarts people have high EQ.

The good news is, according to the author of EQ, we can pick up this EQ as we grow up, if we keep on this informal learning of 'life wisdom' in social situation.

Many years ago, there was this American sitcom in TV entitled "facts of life".

We can observe that many lessons in life can be learnt at home, in neighbourhood and lastly in school.

Education is everywhere...not limited to scoring strings of A's.

To me, education has wider meaning.

Acquring daily wisdom and self-leadership, so that one can stand on one's own two feet or being independent is one of many life-long pursuits.

Msian Taxpayer

Msian taxpayer

Anonymous said...

To clk,

FYI, USM in Penang does offer the course "philosopher of social sciences" to their students, taught by a team of lecturers..

An eye-opening course, I must say...

But I concur to you that in French, students have been exposed to philosophy subjects in high school...

Anonymous said...


the course is "philosophy of social sciences" and not "philosopher.."

clk said...

There may be subjects in philosophy here and there, but not a single philosophy major is offered. Critical areas such as logic, epistemology, mind, language are unlikely to be covered by any uni here.

The only way one can do so in M'sia is to sign up with the UofLondon external prog. As for philsophy of religion, it will not see the light in this country by any public or private uni for obvious reasons.

It's difficult to call oneself a world class school (except specialised ones) and not offering a philosophy prog.

Anonymous said...

Another errata,

Should be " ....in France" not "...in French". French is the people and language, not the country. Unless you are saying that "students have been exposed to philosophy subjects in high school in French." :P

Anonymous said...

It's really quite philosophical the discussion tread here.

-- Old Man

Anonymous said...

Programmes like philosophy is not in the best interest of the malaysian government. We are still very much a developing country, so we need to focus on engineering-type courses. The goal of a developing country is to ensure that its workforce meet its industry demands - skill wise. We really do not need philosophers and the like. Too far in advance at this stage.

What worries me is how our graduates are graduating. Not only do they lack critical/analytical thinking skills, they lack basic communication skills. And that is a very alarming trend these days, as evident by the large number of unemployed grads. Go to any developed nation and you will find that the majority of them are just average in terms of skills and intellect. What differentiates them is culturally - they are more open and sociable, thereby promoting better communication and interaction among themselves.

It's good that we should press on teaching graduates analytical and problem-solving skills. But more importantly, we need to teach them good communication skills first. That's a more fundamental skill. Like constructing a building, we always start with a good foundation. No point constructing something elaborate but crumbles at its roots.

clk said...

To anony 10Mar-0359 hrs, you said "What worries me is how our graduates are graduating. Not only do they lack critical/analytical thinking skills, they lack basic communication skills."

This is precisely the need for a philosophy course as it covers these key areas. Philosophy is a recommended route for journalism and law in the US for example for this reason.

Just look at the rubbish we get from media these days. Politicians and the media goes round the circle to continuously hoodwink the public...

Anonymous said...

From meriam webster:

1 a (1) : all learning exclusive of technical precepts and practical arts (2) : the sciences and liberal arts exclusive of medicine, law, and theology (a doctor of philosophy) (3) : the 4-year college course of a major seminary b (1) archaic : PHYSICAL SCIENCE (2) : ETHICS c : a discipline comprising as its core logic, aesthetics, ethics, metaphysics, and epistemology

2 a : pursuit of wisdom b : a search for a general understanding of values and reality by chiefly speculative rather than observational means c : an analysis of the grounds of and concepts expressing fundamental beliefs

3 a : a system of philosophical concepts b : a theory underlying or regarding a sphere of activity or thought (the philosophy of war) (philosophy of science)

4 a : the most general beliefs, concepts, and attitudes of an individual or group b : calmness of temper and judgment befitting a philosopher.

Perhaps many of us know the word "philosophy" but not really underestand its meaning. Notice especially definition 2. Science students might have perceptions that philosophy is too "arts".

One way to bring our student back on track is to either incorporate philosophy in their science subjects, kind of critical thinking or make a philosophy subject compulsory for students.

Will it burden students? You decide.


Anonymous said...

Get rid of Moral Studies and bring in General Philosophy instead!

AnachronisticPenguin said...

Thanks to Google, this comment section was revived. Well, just a few keypoints:

1. School should be a platform to hone students perception and critical thinking abilities, but looking at how exam-centric our system is, the above comment (A student contemplating suicide) is expected...

2. Students regard school/university as ends to education, rather than means to educate themselves. Verily current approach radically misleads students to believe such. K-Economy? Not until the laymen of the society can discuss philosophy, economy or morality in its roughest terms, rather than discussing Gaga and Fashion.

This all leads to one thing; students are taught to be tools rather than being the master of the tool itself. Knowledge is power, but it is useless, let alone dangerous if the wielder doesn't grasp wisdom properly....

Sometimes one can learn something so much through observation alone than multitude of books and DIY: Thinking, LOL!

Regards, a wayward and Moribund student of the East.