Not-So-Basic Basic Skills
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.
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
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.
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.
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"
Learning about Learning
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.
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.
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
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"
Confidence and Identity in Basic Skills Learning
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
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.
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.
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.
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.