In a recent article The Economist magazine reviewed the results of an Inter-American Development Bank report on the OLPC project in Peru. While known for its insightful writing, in this case The Economist missed the point. While correctly pointing out that math and language skills showed no noticeable improvement after the children started using their XO laptop, The Economist missed the most important point. In Peru children showed a marked improvement in cognitive skills.
Cognitive skills are important as evidenced by their inclusion in the international PISA tests, which are the bench mark for measuring educational effectiveness worldwide. PISA describes cognitive skills in their 2003 Evaluation Framework as follows:
"Problem solving is an individual's capacity to use cognitive processes to confront and resolve real, cross-disciplinary situations where the solution path is not immediately obvious and where the literacy domains or curricular areas that might be applicable are not within a single domain of mathematics, science or reading."
Cognitive skills are the higher order skills required to properly process information, evaluate the information in terms of critical thinking and draw original, creative conclusions. While math and language skills may have been of paramount importance in the industrial age, many commentators have identified cognitive skills as critical for success in the digital age of the 21st century.
The 21st century will be a period of individual empowerment with much less reliance on corporate infrastructures and other traditional institutions. The successful individuals will be masters of creating original content, packaging it in multiple forms and marketing it globally. While traditional industries such as agriculture and manufacturing will still make a significant contribution to the world economy, the new opportunities from the digital age will make an increasing economic contribution. However, this contribution is much more likely to come at the individual level rather than through institutions.
Perhaps The Economist needs to update its business model for the 21st century. Then, perhaps The Economist will realize the really meaningful results from the increase in the cognitive skills of the children in Peru. As OLPC is always quick to point out, the children do not need to learn computing but rather learn through the computer. The children of Peru in their environment of limited resources and undertrained teachers have learned the most important skills--cognitive skills. Now we just need for The Economist to recognize it.