Do the “basics” change over time?

If you clicked on this blog post because of the title hoping I would provide answers, I am about to disappoint you.  I think I have more questions than answers after so many thoughts being shared on Twitter.  I am blogging to learn here, not to necessarily share learning. Bear with me.

After reading a tweet from an educator talking about how they didn’t use social media when they were kids and they turned out just fine, and that schools should “focus on the basics”, I tweeted this question out:


(Please find time to read the thread on Twitter…some really interesting conversations happening there.)

First of all, what has been traditionally considered the “basics” in education, and why?  The standard response are the 3 r’s; reading, writing, and arithmetic (I hate that only one starts with an ‘r’ but I digress).  Making my own assumption on “why” the “basics” are seen as crucial, is that these are considered the basic minimum skills that anyone would need to have in our world. That last sentence was hard to write.  I almost wrote to “succeed” in today’s world, but if you can read, write, and do math, this doesn’t mean you will be successful. Yet, they are a foundation.  That makes more sense to me. (I told you I am trying to figure it out.)

When I first wrote this, I was thinking, “Are using email and the Internet ‘basics’ in 2017?” This response really helped me past that thinking:


So is “communication” a basic skill in our world today? If so, would all of the “four C’s” be considered “basics” (critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity) in today’s world?

If they are considered “basics”, we have to understand that what they look like over time change. “Critical thinking” in 1970 might look significantly different to today in a world of information overload, as do the others.

I always talk about this with educators in relation to how communication, and our views of it have changed over time.  When I first became a principal, the thought of writing an emoticon in an email to a staff member would have been insane to me.  What I learned quickly is that the “smiley face” was one of the best tools that I could use to ensure the tone of an email was not perceived as negative.  That being said, I would not suggest to a student today that they would use an emoticon in a cover letter.

Thanks for your time to look over my information; it would be a true pleasure to work for your organization :)

Might not be the best look.

Part of a comment I recently left on Eric Sheninger’s recent post (read the whole thing):

 Is there a balance between using “best practice” while also focusing on innovation in education? Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant stated to the effect of “best practice is often the enemy of innovation”. Blockbuster didn’t move forward with purchasing Netflix because their evidence had show that their model worked in the past. What do you believe the balance should be of going out and trying something new, while also using what we believe to be “tried and true” practices?

I love writing comments on blogs because it makes me really try to understand what the author is sharing, but also spurs me to think deeply about a topic. When I wrote the following,

Blockbuster didn’t move forward with purchasing Netflix because their evidence had show that their model worked in the past.

it really made me think about what “best practice” is based on, and will those measurements still hold true for the future?  In a conversation with Katie Martin, she stated, “if the world is changing, the research and evidence become irrelevant if you don’t consider a new context.”  That statement really pushed my thinking.  When we talk about the “basics”, are we considering what that means in the context of our world today.

One of the commenters on Twitter (there were so many), suggested moving away from the term “basics” to “foundational skills”.  These are the minimums of what we hope all students walk away from our schools.  Does the shift from “basics” to “foundational skills” mean something different?

I searched for “what are the basics of education” (is searching for information online a “basic”…see how I did it :), and the number of answers and differing opinions was overwhelming (I can’t stop thinking about if in my last use of brackets, is it okay to end a bracket as a smiley face, or should there have been a second bracket; ie :)) It just doesn’t look right either way.)

I have no answers here.  What I think is that we need conversations in our communities.  As was pointed out to me, the context of your community matters in what is believed is to be essential. Do we have the conversation with our communities though?  Perhaps some would argue that the “basics” should be the same in every school as our students will grow up in a much more global community that we did as students, and maybe that would be right. Either way, have the conversation.  We need to do that more.

Here is one thing that I do think I know (or maybe I don’t)…if we think the “basics” are the 3 R’s only in our world today, we are robbing our students of essential skills that will be deemed necessary.

Wait…there is one more thing I know.

If we only focus on the basics in school, we take away a lot of opportunities from our students.  This quote from Yong Zhao (which I have shared as many times as possible), always resonates:

Yes, the “basics”, whatever those are today, are crucial. I would just contend that our kids need so much more from their time in our schools.  I hope that is one thing that we could all agree upon.

Would love to know your thoughts and ideas.

Source: George Couros

One Comment

  1. Kelli Harrell said:

    I can’t believe how relevant this post is to my current reality. Since school ended about a month ago, I’ve been struggling with a “back to the basics” movement for my school. I feel we have abandoned some basics in curriculum practice and until we do those things, it seems ineffective to move forward on new initiatives (like PBLs). Our core values are compassion, integrity and innovation. Innovation often takes a back seat when basics are emphasized. Our school is low performing, so there is pressure to focus on basics. I’d like to believe that if we focus on innovation , the basics will come. As a principal and reading specialist, I’ve questioned this idea for years! I, too, have more questions than answers at this time. I hope to read more of this blog to help me clarify my thinking around these issues and determine next steps for my school.

    July 6, 2017

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