Choose your terms wisely. Alt title: How I am slowly eliminating the term ‘basic skills’ from my classroom
I’m half way through semester 1 and currently reading my students’ assignment 1 work. They had to tell me, with reference to personal experience as well as scholarly theory, what their philosophy is on English teaching and which pedagogical approach they find most relevant in 2014.
In the weeks leading up to the assignment due date I impressed this message upon them:
If you tell me that you advocate a ‘basic skills’ approach to teaching I will fail your paper.
Now, I wouldn’t seriously fail an assignment on the back of such a mistake (though I will ask students who make the mistake to meet with me and explain why they haven’t been in lectures!). But from what I’ve read so far, the scare tactic worked and the message has thankfully sunk in.
So this is how, one cohort at at time, I am slowly doing my bit to erase the misleading, poorly defined, often destructive term ‘basic skills’ from educational discourse.
Why do I bother with this?
I have a personal beef with the term ‘basic skills’ as it is an affront to the work of educators on many levels.
Firstly, there are the negative connotations of the term basic. If these skills are so basic, as in ‘boring’ or ‘unintriguing’, we should not be surprised that students don’t flock to master them. Nor should we expect teachers to employ pedagogies that drill students on them lest we run the risk of boring everyone to death.
Secondly, it belies the complex task of engaging students with learning in areas such as literacy or numeracy. If the job of teaching reading (for example) is so basic, then buddy, how about you come try it?
Thirdly, I find that when most people talk about basic skills, what they really mean to talk about is something like ‘key concepts’.
A prime example was seen today when national education correspondent Justine Ferrari (who should well and truly know the difference between knowledge and skills) wrote an article comparing how “key maths concepts” are taught in Australia compared to Singapore, then tweeted to publicise her article announcing that it was about ‘basic skills’. I would dismiss this as an honest mistake, except that Justine is no rookie and has been writing about education for years.
I tweeted back to let her know my thoughts:
Am I just being pedantic?
No, I don’t think so.
The terms we use to describe ideas MATTER.
As an English teacher, I know this. As a journalist, Justine knows this. But what I want so desperately is for all my students to know this too.
This semester I personally lecture and tutor all 110 students in English Curriculum Studies 1. They all have a sense that there are such things as ‘fundamental concepts’ (which relate to content knowledge) and they all wanted to advocate learning ‘skills that are important for life’. By taking the term basic skills away they were forced to articulate what it was they actually believed in. Was it literacy? If so, they were empowered to use the wealth of available theory on literate practices and multiliteracies. Was it life skills? If so, I directed them to the general capabilities in the Australian Curriculum, where they could find out about and debate the thing closest to ‘skills’ currently underpinning Australian schooling.
Good bye basic skills!
I know I can’t change the world over night. But I do hope that by banning the term basic skills from my own class that I at least give the 100+ students I teach each semester pause for thought.
My message to them: If you mean literacy or numeracy, then say so. And be ready to explain your definition of such terms.
I’ll end this post by sharing an answer that I gave one student a few weeks ago. She asked: what should we do when people insist on using the term ‘basic skills’? I suggested she might ask such people to list what those basic skills are. I already know from experience that most folks have no such list in mind (which begs the question – if the skills are so basic, why can’t you tell me what they are?). Instead they just have some washed-out notion in their heads that includes spelling and multiplication tables…and that’s about it. I also assured her that most people at dinner parties would be bored by the conversation by that point, so it’ll rarely come up ;)
Parent-teacher interviews are another story. A story for another time perhaps.
I want to post here two excellent images that I have come across to explain the various theories and concepts that can be drawn on in relation to learning and pedagogy.
The first is an image that I found via TeachThought (an excellent website – set aside a good hour to go and browse):
The image originally came from a 2008 post by Andrew Churches on edorigami, which also features diagrams explaining thinking skills, assessment and ‘fluency’. You can check that post out here: http://edorigami.edublogs.org/2008/08/16/21st-century-pedagogy/
The second image I am sharing here is this maaassssssive map of Learning Theory produced by the HoTEL project in the EU:
While all of the links made in the maps above are open to challenge and discussion, I really value them as texts! Both maps do a great job of visualising some of the theoretical complexity that sits behind education practice and decision making. I’ll definitely be sharing them with my pre-service teachers next year.
This semester I modified my unit planning assessment for CLP409 (Secondary English Curriculum Studies 2) based on the outline developed by Bianca Hewes. You can see the 40 fantastic project outlines by her fabulous #EDMT5500 students on her blog.
Bianca developed her ‘Inquire, Create, Share’ model for project-based learning (PBL) units after finding that planning PBL units needed to involve more visible teaching and explicit structure to ensure students learned required knowledge and collaboration skills.
As I see it, this approach is a variation of existing models that suggest units of work be designed around phases of ‘Orientate, Enhance, Synthesise’. These particular verbs are popular in Queensland Schools, and can be found as one of two recommended unit planning frameworks on the QSA website.
The two things that I love about the unit framework that Bianca has developed are:
- It provides a structure for PBL units that takes on the narrative flow I find so natural in teaching – there is a clear beginning, middle and end in these units.
- The shift in verbs used to drive learning activity is important; activities to ‘Orientate, Enhance and Synthesise’ could still be very teacher-centered but ‘Inquire, Create, Share’ and similar verbs deliver an imperative to engage student-centered learning and project sharing.
Following Bianca’s lead I am posting my Assignment Task Sheet here for all to see, and below you will find some of my students’ finished products, reproduced with their permission.
Please notice that I used the same Driving Question as Bianca, ‘How can I create a project for English that will help my students own their learning?’, and that I retained some of the structure of her original project as well. Some things I did a bit differently were: adding an essay writing component where students justified their choices using scholarly and professional literature; requiring students to refer to Australian Curriculum elements rather than ISTE NETS and professional standards; providing models of other assignments.
Of course, I could only provide my class with models of assignments because Bianca’s students had been willing to publicly share their work in the first place. So a big THANK YOU to those fabulous (and generous) #EDMT5500 students, and to the University of Sydney, for making their work available to the world :)
This week a former student of mine posted a link to a piece she had written for the University of Sydney student newspaper, Honi Soit. I read the story (feeling proud, impressed, and agreeing with her the whole time), and quickly asked if she would mind if I reposted the article here as a guest post on my blog.
Lauren checked with Honi, and Honi were fine with it (thanks editors!). Which makes me happy, because I think this story about the systematic exclusion of disadvantaged students from university is an important one to tell. As a ‘first in family’ university student from Sydney’s Southwest, I too have experienced the cultural and financial barriers to university success.
So here, with kind permission from the author, Lauren Pearce, and the original publisher, Honi Soit, is the article…
Christopher Pyne, equity goals, and the p-word
Lauren Pearce thinks those advocating to keep USYD “prestigious” often do little more than lock out the disadvantaged
by Lauren Pearce, published by Honi Soit on October 15, 2013.
I’m going to drop the p-word: prestigious. There’s really nothing wrong with that word. The only real issue is if you keep applying the word to yourself, justly or otherwise. Then you start to look like another p-word: pretentious.
On Thursday, 10 October Tony Abbott emerged in Melbourne to assure reporters the university reforms that Christopher Pyne announced earlier were to be put on a back-burner. These changes would mean a cap on university places as opposed to the “demand-driven system” currently in place and the axing of equity goals that encourage students from low-SES backgrounds to enroll, a move that Pyne stated would ensure quality but which had been criticised by the NTEU as detrimental to students from low-SES backgrounds and regional students.
#TMBrisbane 2013 (September)
I recently publicised a TeachMeet that my students and I were hosting at QUT as part of a unit on English Curriculum Studies. This particular TeachMeet had the theme ‘What works in education?’ and was designed to facilitate the kind of professional sharing that I want to model for my students – open, generous and friendly with a focus on developing relationships and building communities of practice.
The picture above shows a few of our participants in further conversation during the tea break. This was an after-school session, run from 4.45-6.30pm, and it was great to see presentations from a wide range of contexts. Speakers on the day were:
- Alison Welch – The benefits of collaboration
- Mark Yeates – Use of LMSs from a Year Level Coordinator’s Perspective
- Greg Howes – Designing infographics to promote creativity
- Garry Collins – One little thing that works in teaching grammar
- Nathan Beveridge – Bananas about STEMx: Applications of Fruit and High Technology in C21st Learning
- Lisa Furuya – Gamifying your practice
- Kelli McGraw – The ongoing relevance of the Productive Pedagogies
- Anita Garnsworthy – Inside learning goals: Gathering student insight and feedback
- Josephine Wise – Leading and Teaching: 10 Top Tips for moving from Highly Accomplished to Lead Teacher
- Bruce Lee – Introducing the Scootle Community (www.scootle.edu.au)
The big messages and important links from the TeachMeet have been captured using Storify at this link:
The power of TeachMeet…
Reflecting on the event, I think the best part of a TeachMeet is the opportunity for face-to-face connection with other educators in a non-threatening environment. Although we also had a strong backchannel occurring in both Twitter and Scootle, it was the chance to ‘put a face to a name’ that I valued most.
It was also awesome to see experienced educators modelling courageous sharing for my preservice teachers – everyone authentically attempted the ‘pecha kucha’ or ‘micropresentation’ styles, which are challenging to master!
TeachMeets are PD events run in the ‘unconference tradition’ – they are free to attend and the presentations are short (2 or 7 minutes only). Our TeachMeet had a mixture of classroom teachers and school leaders, as well as a university teacher, a student/pre-service teacher, teachers undertaking research degrees and policy workers. I was so proud of my students for having the confidence to host the event and get involved in professional conversations…they also put on a pretty mean afternoon tea spread ;)
The next Brisbane TeachMeet will be held soon, on Thursday 24th October, at Marist Ashgrove. If you are an educator in SouthEast Queensland I encourage you to attend – you can sign up via the wiki.