Metaskills: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: December 22nd, 2012 by bobmorris

Metaskills: Five Talents for the Robotic Age
Marty Neumeier
New Riders (2012)

How and why metacognition (highly-developed “knowing about knowing”) requires mastery of metaskills

J. H. Flavell was probably the first to use the term metacognition when suggesting that it “refers to one’s knowledge concerning one’s own cognitive processes or anything related to them, e.g., the learning-relevant properties of information or data. For example, I am engaging in metacognition if I notice that I am having more trouble learning A than B; if it strikes me that I should double check C before accepting it as fact.” That was in 1976.

What we have 36 years later, in Marty Neumeier’s latest book, is a brilliant examination of metaskills within the context of a global business world that is increasingly more complicated, confusing, frustrating, and uncertain than at any prior time that I can remember. Neumeier calls it the “Robotic Age” while noting that today’s robots are, at best, early prototypes of what are certain to become far more sophisticated than we can possibly imagine now. Human beings must develop both the nature and extent of their mental capabilities (e.g. cognition) if they are to control rather than be controlled by the advanced technologies that await. How to do that? In a word, “metaskills” and Neumeier identifies and discusses five:

FEELING (e.g. intuition, empathy, and social intelligence)
SEEING (i.e. the ability to think, whole thoughts, also known as systems thinking)
DREAMING (the metaskill of applied imagination)
MAKING (i.e. master the design process, including skills for devising prototypes of, for example, robots)
LEARNING (the audodidactic ability to learn new skills at will)

Note: This last talent or metaskill is perhaps the most important, in my opinion, because we cannot understand what is beyond our ability to recognize, process, and assimilate. To paraphrase Albert Einstein, we cannot solve problems with the mental skills that created them. Neumeier would hasten to add that we will also need highly developed skills to achieve metaintuition. (That is the subject for another book I hope he one day writes.)

These are among the passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to give at least some indication of the range of subjects that Neumeier covers:

o The Innovation Mandate (Pages 8-11)
o The Obsolete Industrial Brain and Wanted: Metaskills (24-30)
o Brain Surgery, Self-Taught (39-45)
o Leonardo’s Assistant (54-57)
o The Aesthetics Toolbox (70-71)
o Thinking Whole Thought (95-98)
o The Art Is in the Framing (130-136)
o The Play Instinct (154-163)
o The Art of Simplexity (191-193)
o The Joy Zone (209-213)
o A Theory of Learning (217-220)
o Unplugging (226-228)

With all due respect to J. H. Flavell’s importance, the first time I encountered the term (metacognition) was years later when, quite by accident, I was browsing through a friend’s copy of Metacognition: Knowing about Knowing, published by MIT Press (1994) and co-edited by Janet Metcalfe and Arthur P. Shimamura. I mention all this by way of suggesting that Marty Neumeier’s most recently published book enables a layman such as I to appreciate (if not as yet fully understand) the exciting opportunities that await all of us in a relatively new field of cognitive science. We now know more about knowing than ever before but, I suspect, the process has only begun. Hence the great importance — and significance — of the contributions that Neumeier makes with this book.

In the final chapter, Neumdeier offers what he calls “A Modest Proposal.” He recommends a seven-step process by which to end and then reverse a process of sacrificing our children to “the gods of mass production.” The details of this process are best revealed within the narrative, in context, but I feel comfortable noting that his ultimate objective (and an admirable one indeed) is to transform the education of young people so that (yes) they can more quickly — Swiftly? — master metaskills and thereby (a) achieve metacognition and also (b) become more fully developed human beings with sharper minds, kinder hearts, and healthier bodies. My own take is that, indeed, everything Neumeier affirms can nourish quality of life. If there is anything else more important than that, I sure would like to know.

That said, no brief commentary such as mine can possibly do full justice to the scope of material that Marty Neumeier provides in this volume but I hope that I have at least suggested why I think so highly of him and his work. Also, I hope that those who read this commentary will be better prepared to determine whether or not they wish to read the book and, in that event, they will have at least some idea of how the information, insights, and counsel could perhaps be responsive to the needs, interests, and especially the challenges to the given organization.

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