Windows on Learning: Resources for Basic Skills Education

Key Concepts for Basic Skills: Rethinking Foundations

Three connecting concepts run through the case studies, tools, and materials that make up the Windows on Learning collection. On this page, you will find brief discussions of each, designed to be "conversation starters" for work with colleagues -- and students.


Not-So-Basic Basic Skills

If you were asked what you remember about learning to read or to do basic arithmetic, you might recall some fleeting images: being read to by a parent or studying a book with big letters and pictures at your school desk. By now these skills have become a part of who you are and how you see the world. Indeed, literacy and numeracy have become so automatic to many adults they are essentially invisible, so second nature that we don't really understand how someone could have trouble learning something so simple.

But in fact, these skills are not so basic or so simple. As the research on literacy shows, the reading process that most of us take for granted is highly complex. As we "decode" a text, we bring to bear a vast reservoir of linguistic and cultural knowledge, connecting new ideas with old ones, figuring out words we may not know, actively questioning what we read as we read it, trying out and refining our understandings and responses.

The same is true in mathematics. In a book that has been highly influential on all sides of the math wars, Carnegie Foundation scholar Liping Ma writes about Profound Understandings of Fundamental Mathematics (PUFM). Ma's work illustrates the complex knowledge and skills that are required in order fully to learn (and to teach) even the most apparently simple mathematical functions.

This view of basic skills has significant implications for teaching and learning. Basic skills courses are notorious for "drill and kill" and "dumbed-down" instruction. Yet understanding the complex processes and understandings entailed in successful reading, writing and mathematical problem solving points to a very different approach. This approach means being explicit with students about assumptions and processes that have become automatic to us; it means making these processes and assumptions visible to students as habits they can develop, rather than as gifts given exclusively to instructors; and it means creating an educational environment where students learn about themselves as learners and develop strategies for success.

Additionally, this "not-so-basic" view of basic skills calls on educators to challenge and engage students much more deeply. Repetition and practice are good things, but memorization and drill without a connection to big ideas can frustrate students and teachers both. No one becomes a writer or reader merely by learning grammatical rules, and memorizing a mathematical formula does not by itself lead to the kinds of quantitative literacy that are needed today. Nor is this kind of approach necessary. Even at the most fundamental levels of English and mathematics, intellectually engaging problems and issues exist in abundance. With a balance of challenge and support, students can engage in lively, authentic debate and intellectual exchange.

For further discussion please see the Carnegie Perspectives piece:

"Pipeline or Pipedream: Another Way to Think about Basic Skills"

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Learning about Learning

Much is now known about how people learn, and educators at all levels are tapping into new insights from cognitive science, educational research, and the scholarship of teaching and learning. But teachers are not the only ones who need to understand the learning process. Research shows that students are more likely to succeed if they understand and can monitor their own learning. This capacity is arguably more important now than ever, as the world becomes more complicated, as boundaries of all kinds shift, and as change becomes a constant expectation. It is a capacity especially important for basic skills learners.

Why? For starters, students in basic skills courses (or other courses in which basic skills are needed for success) often come with a short supply of what might be called "studenting skills." Many have not developed the habits of persistence needed for homework problems and assigned reading. They may not have routines for note-taking and studying. Time management is an issue. Some come from settings where even the simple act of "showing up" cannot be taken for granted.

Additionally, many of these students (as is true in higher education generally today) face very real challenges in terms of time and competing priorities. They work, sometimes more than one job; they raise families; they worry about finances. As a consequence, the ability to set goals and to monitor progress is a special imperative for students in basic skills settings.

In turn, teachers have a special responsibility to help students understand themselves as learners. This might mean teaching skills of note taking and outlining. It means helping students monitor their progress -- to understand how grades are calculated, for instance, and what will happen if they receive, say, a D rather than a B on an assigned paper. It means being explicit with students about what is expected and why, and making visible the strategies and processes that have, perhaps, become second nature to more experienced learners. Most of all, it means creating an environment, inside the classroom and beyond, where students can talk openly about their learning, their challenges, and what allows them to succeed.

For further discussion please see the Carnegie Perspectives piece:

"Building Pedagogical Intelligence"

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Confidence and Identity in Basic Skills Learning

In basic skills, as in other educational contexts, knowledge and skills are essential goals. Yet the most powerful forms of learning are not only about what we know and what we can do, but who we are. Indeed, the process of "formation" (to borrow a term from Carnegie's studies of professional education) is both a result of and a condition for deep learning.

In the case of reading, for instance, students must learn not only how to make sense of a text, but to think of themselves as readers -- no insignificant transformation for learners who may not have had easy access to books while growing up, and for whom reading may feel like a chore, a risk, an exercise in the unfamiliar. In writing, too, students must not only learn the mechanics and routines of producing readable texts; they must come to see language as a tool and resource through which they can express themselves in the world, make things happen, and connect with others.

The role of confidence and identity is also well known in mathematics, as illustrated by the long line of work on math anxiety, and on the effect of gender stereotypes on mathematical learning in girls and women.

More generally, basic skills students often do not think of themselves as "college material." They bring powerful life experiences to their educational work, but they may need help seeing those experiences as assets to academic learning. And while all students need encouragement, inspiration, and motivation, these qualities are especially important for students who have not succeeded in the past, or who have been away from formal education for a number of years.

In short, faculty who teach in basic skills contexts play an essential role not only in teaching their discipline but in moving students towards greater confidence and a stronger academic self-image.

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This electronic portfolio was created using the KEEP Toolkit, developed at the
Knowledge Media Lab of The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
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