Sean Slade

Improving Schools: Back to Basics—Struggling with Semantics

"Back to the basics." It's a phrase that's tossed around much but has varying definitions depending on the speaker and audience. For some, "back to the basics" means focusing on the 3 Rs—reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic—before (and sometimes instead of) anything else.

We have to get back to basics in education, like ensuring that our children are developing the reading and writing and math skills they need to effectively compete in a very tough and increasingly global job market.

—U.S. Representative Nick J. Rahall (D-WV) in "Getting Back to Basics in Education"

And it's not just individuals using this definition.

One month after the New York Times hosted the "Is Cursive Dead?" debate, North Carolina declared that cursive is very much alive. House Bill 146, nicknamed the "Back to Basics" bill, was given final approval by the state senate last Thursday and awaits Governor Pat McCrory's signature. The bill requires public elementary schools to instruct students in cursive writing so that kids can "create readable documents through legible cursive handwriting by the end of fifth grade."


The "Back to Basics" act, effective this upcoming school year, will also mandate that students "memorize multiplication tables." The national standards require that students know how to solve problems using multiplication and division by Grade 3 but offer no recommendation of how those operations are to be taught in schools. Critics of the bill have called it an example of legislative overreach in the classroom, but supporters suggest that it merely aims to ensure that schools are teaching the time-honored "basics" of elementary education.

—Lindsey Grudnicki in "North Carolina's 'Back to Basics' Education Revives Cursive Handwriting," National Review

This is not the "back to basics" we are talking about. This is not our definition. Our definition underlines the purpose of education, not the mechanics. The why, not only the how.

In this era of school reform, turn around, and educational change, it is easy to overlook the basics of why we educate and what we want for our children. These aren't the typical basics—reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic. Rather, these are the "real basics" of learning: developing a sense of belonging, instilling a sense of purpose, and expanding each child's potential for what the future may hold.

—ASCD Whole Child Podcast, "Glowing, Growing, and Getting Back to the Real Basics"

This definition corresponds to similar ones promoted by other educators, researchers, and authors.

Lately I have been lying awake at night thinking about basic skills. To be precise, I am wondering what you—or I—would do if we were in charge of getting America "back to basics" in education. Just what are "the basics" anyway? Is that a place we've actually been and now have to return to?


So here are my four: 1) reading and writing; 2) numeracy; 3) creativity; and 4) health and nutrition. Our short-sighted leaders have in the past focused on "The Three Rs" of reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic, which is euphonious but short-sighted.

—John Merrow in "In Education, Back to Basics," Huffington Post

To face the future, America needs to celebrate and develop the diverse talents of all of its people—young and old alike. It needs to cultivate creativity and innovation, systematically and with confidence, in business, in culture and in rebuilding its post industrial communities. It needs to provide leadership at home and abroad in promoting deeper forms of cultural understanding and cooperation. These are the real basics. Basic to all of them is a different view of human talent and ability, and of the real conditions in which people flourish.

—Sir Ken Robinson in "Transform Education? Yes We Must," Huffington Post

Resilience researcher and author Bonnie Benard has her own basics (PDF). The protective factors needed in the school, community, and family to ensure that each child can develop and grow are

  1. Caring Relationships
  2. Meaningful Participation
  3. High Expectation

Just as schools and society change, so must what we deem "the basics of education" change. Maybe—and I would still have to be convinced of this—the 3 Rs held their place as THE basics in the past, but for our children, their future, and our needs, these basics no longer hold true. They will neither equip students with the necessary skills nor ready them for the world to come. Focusing myopically on these basics will more likely hamper student achievement, rather than propel our students forward.

So if they're not reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic, then what are our real basics?

Sean Slade is director of Whole Child Programs at ASCD. The Whole Child Initiative is part of a broad, multiyear plan to shift public dialogue about education from an academic focus to a whole child approach that encompasses all factors required for successful student outcomes, enhancing learning by addressing each student's social, emotional, physical, and academic needs through the shared contributions of schools, families, communities, and policymakers.

During his more than two decades in education, Slade has written extensively on topics related to the whole child and health and well-being (PDF) and has been at the forefront of promoting and using school climate, connectedness, resilience, and youth development data for school improvement. He has been a teacher, head of department, education researcher, senior education officer, project manager, and director. He has taught, trained, and directed education initiatives in Australia, Italy, Venezuela, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

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