Lecturer in secondary English curriculum in the Faculty of Education at Queensland University of Technology
One cohort at a time, I am doing my bit to erase the misleading, poorly defined, and often destructive term ‘basic skills’ from educational discourse.
I ask my second year student teachers in their first assignment in English Curriculum Studies to explain their philosophy on English teaching and tell me which teaching methods they think are important in 2014.
I warn them, ” If you tell me that you advocate a ‘basic skills’ approach to teaching I will fail your paper.”
I won’t. (I only tell them this afterwards.)
What I am trying to do is make them think deeply about their work as future English teachers. I want them to better articulate what kinds of skills they consider fundamental to living a healthy, happy, literate life.
I believe the discussion and debate this produces is invaluable to their understanding as aspiring teachers in the 21st century.
Why do I bother with this?
The term ‘basic skills’ is an affront to educators like me 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 be surprised when teachers opt not to employ teaching methods that drill students on them, lest they 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. To non-teachers who insist on using the term basic skills I say: if the job of teaching reading (for example) is so basic, then how about you try it?
I can tell you it involves a lot more than putting sight words up on the wall and setting spelling tests each Friday.
Thirdly, I find when most people talk about basic skills, they do so with very little knowledge of what is currently covered in the Australian Curriculum. ‘Literacy’ and ‘numeracy’ are very clearly listed as two of seven General Capabilities , alongside fields such as ‘critical and creative thinking’ and ‘ICT capability’. This reflects current ideas in education – that the ‘Three-Rs’ alone are not enough to provide a foundation for a productive and meaningful adult life.
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. I want so desperately for all my students to know this too.
By taking the term “basic skills” away, my students are forced to articulate what it is they actually believe in. If it is indeed literacy and numeracy I wanted them to be able to explain their definition of such terms.
Is it literacy? If so, they can use the wealth of available theory on literate practices and multiliteracies to argue their case.
Is it life skills? If so, the General Capabilities in the Australian Curriculum identify a 21st century set of ‘skills’. These currently underpin Australian schooling and should be explored and debated.
So what should you do, as one student recently asked, when people insist on using the term “basic skills”?
You could suggest they make a list of basic skills. Most people have no such list in mind (which begs the question – if the skills are so basic, why can’t most people articulate what they are?).
Good bye basic skills!
I know I can’t change the world overnight. But I do hope that by banning the term basic skills from assignments in my own class I can get 100+ students each semester to think deeply about what they might do in their classrooms as qualified Australian English teachers.
And I can tell you there is nothing basic about that.
Dr Kelli McGraw is a lecturer in secondary English curriculum in the Faculty of Education at Queensland University of Technology. Her current research is on the role of social media technologies in engaging first year university students, and the use of online writing for assessment. Previously she worked as a teacher of high school English in South-western Sydney, NSW. Kelli is the Vice President of the English Teachers Association of Queensland. You can reach her via twitter: @kmcg2375