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:

twitter convo JF 5April2014

screenshot from 5.4.2014


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.

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  1. #1 by Helena Curtin on April 5, 2014 - 7:51 pm

    Awesome enlightening article Kelli, but I wish I had read it before advocating tripod english in my assignment :/ ekk! I did listen to lectures but underestimated your distaste for the term in thinking it was just the title of ‘basic skills’ you disliked. I only hope I have used more specific definitions in justifying my opinion that it won’t leave such a bad taste in your mouth… Fingers Crossed lol May I suggest in future semesters you post a link to this article in the ‘extra readings’ as it provides a relevant example which clarifies your motives for phasing out the term 🙂

    • #2 by kmcg2375 on April 5, 2014 - 8:46 pm

      Thanks for the comment and suggestion Helena – I’ll definitely be including this post in the reading list next semester! You might also like to read one I wrote about my position on ‘literature’ here:

      Please don’t worry about advocating tripod English – in fact, you’ve done exactly what I hoped for, which is to take a clear stand. The three ‘legs’ of Tripod English are language learning, study of literature, and composition practice. Sadly when most people refer to ‘basic skills’, they only mean one or two of these things, very rarely all three.

  2. #3 by Helena Curtin on April 5, 2014 - 8:43 pm

    On a side note, if Justine meant “basic as in a base” then perhaps she should have written “base skills”? Is that what you’re talking about when you insist we say what we actually mean? I think I can draw similarities between your “beef” with the term basic being offensive as it reflects the negative definitions of the word, and my beef with the term “literally” being used in an ignorant context which degrades the credibility of its true definition 🙂 #ormaybeishouldnotcommentafteranightcap

    • #4 by kmcg2375 on April 5, 2014 - 8:55 pm

      Haha, you know Helena, I almost wrote the joke into my post just for you! I was going to write: “lest we [literally] run the risk of boring everyone to death” and then link the word ‘literally’ to the OED article. Ah, too funny!

      And yes, if she wrote ‘base skills’ that would at least make her meaning more transparent. If that is indeed what she meant.

  3. #5 by Helena Curtin on April 5, 2014 - 9:19 pm

    Oh I would have cringed, conceded defeat, lost all faith in the English language, dropped out of university and [literally] moved to a deserted island to live out my days, thus supporting your argument in choosing our terms wisely! As an example I saw a post recently that read something like “OMG the movie was so sad we were all literally crying”. Now, taking into consideration that it is now also acceptable to use literally in a non-literal sense, I had no idea if the girls were all actually crying liquid tears, or if some were crying and others were just visibly really sad?

  4. #6 by TroyMartin on April 8, 2014 - 6:08 am

    I’ve always said it: teaching: the only profession told to go back to basics. Imagine saying that to a doctor; ‘look forget all the research and science behind those complex modern things, just go back to basics, thanks!’

  5. #7 by ferrarij on April 8, 2014 - 2:22 pm

    “basic (adj): 1a forming the base or essence; fundamental. b simple; elementary. 2a serving as the minimum basis or starting point. b simple; without embellishment; of a low but acceptable standard. 3a having the character of a chemical base. b alkaline.”

    Leaving to one side the fact that I used the term “basic skills” in a tweet to fit the character limit, I stand by its use as legitimate and correct. I think we can all agree I was not using the term in its chemical sense, but meaning base, essence, fundamental, simple or elementary. Basic is a starting point not the end or a limit; it’s the necessary first steps in learning required as a foundation on which more complex skills and ideas can rest. Without this foundation, further learning is difficult if not impossible.
    And doctors do indeed go back to basics all the time, relying on “basic” scientific and medical facts to diagnose and treat, “basic” scientific research is responsible for many breakthroughs in modern medicine.
    Professions do honour the basic or elementary knowledge on which their work is based. Going to back to basics doesn’t mean reverting to Stone Age knowledge or forgetting all the advances of the modern era, it means going back to first principles.
    So if teachers truly are the only profession told to go back to basics, maybe that says something about the state of the teaching profession.

    • #8 by kmcg2375 on April 8, 2014 - 6:03 pm

      Thanks for coming over to engage Justine, I appreciate it.

      Leaving to one side the fact that you needed to compromise your vocabulary in that tweet in order to fit in a superfluous link promoting your Facebook page as well as a link to the article in question, I still beg to differ. As I explain in the post above, no-one would dispute that there are base (or ‘foundation’, or ‘key’) concepts that students benefit from learning. This is different to saying that there are basic ‘skills’ that need to be taught first before moving on to other things.

      For example students do not need to know how to spell correctly in order to engage in a poem, although they clearly need a basic knowledge of what a poem is. See the difference between knowledge and skill?

      I also still would love to hear your views on what you believe the ‘basic skills’ are, and whether you are dissatisfied with the General Capabilities listed in the Australian Curriculum. Stating this explicitly will lead to a fruitful conversation I’m sure.

  6. #9 by dskmag on April 29, 2014 - 8:46 pm

    I too share your issue-love with the term. I believe that it’s culturally related to the sloth of ‘low threshold’ technology use (ie, one step up from the 60s typing pool). Students need to construct arguments over opinions and as a fully qualified graphic designer, spelling is for the byrds. I believe kindness, empathy and a willingness to assist others (even though you don’t know or will benefit from) are key ‘basic skills’.

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