What are the Basics?

Regardless of your political leanings you probably have a relationship with the phrase, “Back to the Basics,” and to some extent that relationship may be positive, as long as people are talking about the basics that you want to get back to. We use this phrase to signal to the listener that

We use this phrase to signal to the listener that we’ve become too entangled in theory, our own definitions of best practice, and probably some kind of “ism” and must right the ship. We right the ship by focusing on the ideas that we all agree on. In the field of education, those ideas seem to be reading and math. Content teachers, like history, science, foreign languages, art, music, and so on, are being asked to support reading and math instruction by weaving the disciplines into their lessons.

But, there’s an unspoken basic that we all agree on that I’d like to challenge. I never hear educators or parents saying, “If these ideas are so basic, why do we have to teach them? Won’t the students learn these anyway?” Now that’s an interesting notion! Just think of it. The definition of basic, according to one source, is “forming an essential foundation or starting point.” You know what that means in my interpretation? You cannot avoid these things. They will be woven throughout all that you do. Where can you go that counting, adding, subtracting, reading, and writing are not used by every person you come in contact with?

I’ll assume for a moment that you’re still with me. Does that mean that there can be no place to teach reading and math to students? We can but the question is if we must. There’s a big difference between allowing a teacher to teach math and reading to students who want help and forcing them to teach reading to students who either don’t see the purpose or don’t feel ready to engage in it. One of these teachers would be more likely to be patient, understanding, and kind while the other is more likely to be impatient, frustrated, and mean. If reading is such an important skill, won’t the students recognize it and learn how to read through their community on their own?

If reading is such a basic skill, won’t the students recognize their need and learn how to read through living life?

But what is wrong with teaching kids how to read? Take a look around at the state of education. Something isn’t working. Students are becoming disengaged and rebellious earlier in school. I’ve worked with students who were hospitalized for suicidal thoughts as early as 5th grade. This family had worked very hard trying to teach their child how to read, and every year he couldn’t, the curriculum they used became less connected with his life. Is it possible for this person to live a happy and productive life without being able to read? If it is, then maybe reading isn’t as basic as we first thought.

I’m not writing to argue which disciplines should be deemed basic, I’m writing to challenge the assumption that everything that’s basic must be taught to every child, even to the point that we will punish them for not being able to learn it.

Here’s a picture you might find helpful if you’re wrestling with how to decide if you should force a student to learn something that you consider a basic skill.

Either way, you can put away the color charts and gold stickers, the progress reports and concerning phone calls home. You can just focus on being ready when they are and practice just being kind and enjoying the presence of children. They truly are a fascinating population. If you haven’t found that to be the case, consider asking yourself if Newton’s Third Law might help.

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Philip Mott

I've been working with families for two decades now. I write about topics pertaining to parents of children ages 4-12.

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