Is the ability to actually do basic math needed today?

I was talking with a young man this past week who is about to graduate with his Ph.D. in Engineering from a top-ranked university.

We were discussing his job offer from a very well-known technology company and talking about the vacation time that came with the position. He said, “160 hours, how many weeks is that?” and as I did the math in my head, he whipped out his smart phone, opened the calculator app, entered “160/40” and about a split second after me, said “4.”

Now, this may be appalling to some, shouldn’t this student about to graduate with a Ph.D. in Engineering just do the simple math in his head?

I argue that no, he shouldn’t.  Why?  Because the amount of knowledge in the world is increasing at an amazing rate and no one can keep all the knowledge in their own specialized field in their head at once, not to mention all the other information some might say is “critical” to know.

This young man is growing up as a digital native in the information age and he is doing what it takes to survive and thrive in this age.  He knows what knowledge and skills are worth keeping in his head, what is critical to his daily life and daily work tasks, when to use his resources, how to use them, and when it is faster to use something other than his brain.  It is very likely that simple math is not something he needs to use every day in his life or in his work so he has gotten rusty at it as he doesn’t use it often…just like most of us and spell check.  For him, there is much more critical information and critical skills that he does need on a regular basis.   So he lets that critical information stay in his brain and uses his available resources, a smart phone–where less critical information is literally a few clicks away, on the rare occasions when he needs it.

Remember, it was not that long ago that most business people didn’t know how to type.  It was not worth knowing how to do because secretaries would do it for them, based on longhand notes or spoken diction.  Kids today are born into a a world with spellcheckers, calculators, and google, and more disruptive technologies are on their way.  The job skills of today are very different than they were a generation ago, and will likely change again by the time today’s kindergarteners are ready to graduate from high school.

What will endure as critical skills for adults in the future?  The ability to be self-directed learners who are motivated to learn what they need, when they need it AND know when to “delegate” to technology because it is more efficient.