But is basic bad? Post 3: Debate 3

To quote Eleanor Shellstrop
GIF credit: The Good Place Memes

Another Monday evening and my brain is rumbling with all the new information laid out smorgasbord-style. Our first debate – Schools should no longer teach skills that can be easily carried out by technology (e.g., cursive writing, multiplication tables, spelling) – simultaneously had me questioning my reliance on unreliable tech while agreeing education needs a more innovative futuristic lens. Both sides presented such compelling, passionate cases I considered calling this: If My Blog is as Fuzzy as My Brain Right Now. I didn’t, and I’ll try to be clear as I outline the presented facts. For me, the question became: Does “basic” mean unnecessary? Let’s see what both sides have to say…

PRO points to consider

I can’t speak for the rest of the class, but in the pre-vote, I was Team PRO- ALL. THE. WAY. As a former student who struggled to learn multiplication facts and spelled I’ve as eyve, I managed to grow up to educate young minds. Sushmeet and Leah passionately outlined why our students deserve more than basic skills.

Survey says: Based on the survey shared on Discord (P.S. – such a brilliant strategy!) our class respondents heavily rely on technology to complete basic tasks, even though many of us come from a bygone era of basic skill drills. Why? Convenience. Should I strain my brain when Grammarly can spell restaurant for me (after my 6th attempt!)? And as someone who was diagnosed with dyscalculia too late in life for it to matter, using Siri as my verbal calculator feels like a godsend. Newsflash: Our teachers lied! We can carry calculators around with us every minute of the day!

Less menial more meaningful: With less focus on rote learning, students become free to create and explore. Cue flashback: It’s grade 3 and I am trying struggling to learn anything past 2X2. My mom buys a bootlegged tape (yes, Gen Z, I said a TAPE!) of multiplication songs. I finally learn my facts. I can sing 5X2=10, but I don’t understand why until I am much older.

Memorizing this…

Multiplication table
Photo credit: Adobe StockPack.

Has much less meaning than the awareness that an egg carton equals a real-world array.

Eggs in an egg carton on a white background. Isolated.
Wow! 5X2 really does equal 10!
Photo Credit: Adobe StockPack

Additionally, less focus on basic math skills allows more time for critical thinking tasks like makerspaces and coding. Hmmmm, would students rather look at a 2-D multiplication table or make a 3-D printing of an array city? I know what 9-year-old me would’ve said!

Less impersonal while more equitable: Rote learning often fails to consider the diverse needs (and circumstances) of each student. As discussed in previous debates, tech can provide a diversified approach to student interests and abilities. Likewise, with less focus on spelling (as if it somehow reflects a person’s character) more time can be used for relevant and humanitarian-based subjects: social justice, climate change, and the like. If you’ve read my other post on tech-equity (techquity?), you’ll know I am not a huge proponent of technology bridging the digital divide; however, in the Tedx Talk Re-inventing Education in the Digital Age, speaker David Middelbeck makes a compelling case for a digital shift in education. Technology (when and where available) can be used to help students struggling with basic math and grammar skills; they can then advance to more innovative and employable skills like coding.

Shift in teacher-student roles: As discussed in class, educational roles are changing. In the aforementioned Tedx Talk, Middelbeck outlines how education has consistently (albeit often too slowly) adjusted to meet the learning needs of society. The printing press marked an increase in class-inclusive education systems. The Industrial Revolution pushed an agenda of homogenous learning and capitalist advancement. Today, digital age educators are helping students use technology to ask and answer their own questions through creation and collaboration. With the use of such technology, how important is cursive writing for students in comparison to programs that allow ideas to flow across a shared screen?

Retro picture of classmates. Group of children in the classroom
Industrial Era classrooms…and you thought yours was packed!
Photo credit: Adobe StockPack

Other points like tech providing timely feedback and less bias were also discussed, but I’m not 100% sure these concepts exist in the “same lane” as the idea schools should no longer teach basic skills. Please feel free to argue this point with me! Until then, I’ll move on…

Aerial view of road interchange or highway intersection with busy urban traffic speeding on the road. Junction network of transportation taken by drone.
What lane am I in anymore?
Photo credit: Adobe StockPack

CON points to consider

Just when I thought I was firmly entrenched in the PRO camp, Alyssa, Kelly, and Durston presented their compelling reasons why basic doesn’t mean bad in education.

Current events versus current abilities: If ever there was a timely case for the necessity of basic skills in education, the ransomware situation at Regina Public has certainly provided a relevant anecdotal record. As my Regina-based classmates struggled with tasks ranging from photocopying to inputting report card data, I questioned if I could function without technology in the classroom. Short answer: As an online educator, I can’t. Obviously.

Even in a physical classroom, I flounder with certain basic skills. Thank “The Good Place” ransomware can’t attack calculators, but what would I do without one? The situation was posed in class: If a student asks a math equation and the teacher needs to walk across the classroom to grab a calculator, how bad does that look? Full disclaimer: In the past, I have frequently been that teacher. Of course, it’s not calculators that finally “saved” me – it’s (really) learning my basic math. Hurray for meaningful math strategies! Likewise, it took time and effort for me to master my spelling issues. As Grammarly seamlessly corrects my errors (while I type this), I am extremely grateful; however, without basic grammar skills, I could never catch the issues often missed by computer programs. Quite often, or at least in my case, it feels like basic skills must come before tech skills.

Me, trying to do math
(if I had a beard)
GIF credit: Tenor.com taken from The Hangover

Mental math trumps calculators: My anecdotal academic failings aside (are you shocked I actually made it as a teacher?!), let’s return to the data. In Mathematics Deficit: Why do Canadian Students Still Struggle in Math?, author P. Bennett provides some (disappointing) findings: “The most recent April 2021 Fraser Institute report on Mathematics performance of students across Canada contained very few surprises. . . . Steep declines have been registered by students from Alberta (- 38 points), British Columbia (-34 points), and Saskatchewan (- 31 points).” Why? Bennett stresses an over-reliance on calculators since the 1980s. In comparison “top performing nations, such as Singapore, China, and Korea, put far more emphasis on integrating mental computation with conceptual understanding before progressing to higher-level math and problem-solving.” In simple terms, we have to lay structurally sound foundations (see: basic math) before we can expand our thinking confidently and creatively.

Grammar: A Schoolhouse Rock production: We’ve all read the (judgy) adage: “If you say ‘I seen’ rather than ‘I saw’ I will assume it’s never been the inside of a book!” (anon). Schoolhouse Rock, with its catchy beats, led us to believe that spelling and grammar act as windows to our minds. As discussed by the CON team, a lack of basic spelling and grammar skills can negatively impact a student’s future in the following ways:

  • Employability: Though arguably an antiquated and possibly costly practice, employers dismiss over 42% of resumes based on spelling errors.
  • Miscommunications: Students have valuable ideas, but grammatical issues can cause their concepts to be lost in translation.
  • Societal judgment: It’s not a point I like mentioning, but society is constantly judging us based on our grammatical/spelling skills. Whether applying to a university, writing a prescription, or creating a business site, grammatical mistakes can prove costly.
  • Societal Inequity: This one relates to all basic skills – if we assume technology will “fix” all student learning discrepancies, then we assume all students have access to these technologies in the first place.

Enter the case for programs like Grammarly and Readable. If grammar and spelling are so elitist and important, why not use assistive tech to help students? Every year, I have my students download Grammarly to their Chromebooks, and every year, the ones who don’t have basic grammar and spelling skills seem colour-blind to the glaringly obvious (to me) red squiggly lines. We cannot slap a grammar program on little Billy’s learning (dis)ability – brought on by a lack of literacy at home – and then wipe our hands clean. And as Durston noted in his team’s defense, we can’t just be waiting for future tech; our current technology is simply not there yet. I can attest to that as Grammarly tries to adjust my Canadian spelling to American for the millionth time (despite changing my settings a hundred million times!). It’s colour not color, Grammarly!

Grammar, saving lives
Photo credit: BookBub Memes

The case for cursive: I haven’t discussed cursive much because, as a person with a weird hybrid form of print-handwriting, I’m uncertain how much this skill has helped or hindered me….or any of my students. In its defense, cursive writing (when a mastered skill) is quicker than printing, allowing for flowing prose and speedy note-taking. Additionally, as noted in the Edutopia article What We Lose With the Decline of Cursive, cursive lights up the brain, activating increased memorization skills. For me, if I have to give up one basic skill for myself and my students, it will be cursive. From Egyptian hieroglyphics to Chinese Hanzi, the way we communicate using letters and images will continue to evolve (and I’m okay with that). Of course, I may just be bitter because my old-school, beautifully scripted mother consistently judges my sloppy handwriting!

Basic ain’t so bad, and ain’t ain’t a word…

After all that thinking (and it’s been hours on this topic alone), I have reached the conclusion that “basic” has its place in our lives, neither bad nor unnecessary when used mindfully. Like technology, basic multiplication and grammatical skills must be used with purpose. I feel with certainty there is no purpose in telling students, “Memorize these math facts! Why? Because that’s how it’s always been done!” Even if educators resisted the use of computers and/or programs, there remains a Pinterest-plethora of innovative, hands-on learning activities that can demonstrate basic concepts without relying on sit-and-get drill sheets. When we teach basic skills to show the why and how of learning, students can use these concepts as scaffolding for deeper-level thinking. In their closing remarks, the PRO team quoted John Dewey: “If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.” I would argue that we cannot build for tomorrow if we do not understand yesterday.

Stay tuned for Debate 4 (which I haven’t named yet because I can no longer see straight)….Meanwhile, someone please save me from my own fuzzy thoughts/blog, what were your main takeaways from this debate?