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Blog April 25, 2023

What Is Wrong with “Back To Basics” Education? – A Lot!

There is a pendulum in education theory. Because I am old, I have seen it swinging back and forth many times. Even if you are not old, you may have seen it once or twice yourself. Here is what happens: Kids go to school and learn stuff. Someone, often in a government that is being challenged for various reasons, says that the kids aren’t learning the right stuff. They accuse the education system of trying to lead kids astray by introducing a) frills b) democracy c) critical thinking d) something else they don’t understand or are not good at.

For “frills”, you can read music, the arts, contemporary literature, politics, the humanities, or heaven forbid -- anti-racism teaching. For “democracy” read anything that smacks of permitting educators and learners to express a point of view that differs from those in power. For “critical thinking” read any lesson that engages students in independent thought that could challenge the status quo. After all, isn’t school supposed to be all about the “Three Rs?”

After the schools reopened, following the closures brought about by the pandemic, learners were found to have fallen behind the usual grade-level expectations. This is hardly surprising, considering that many kids did not have the materials nor the technology to stay connected to their classes – and many classes were less than ideal when presented in an online format. We also know that the things most students cherish about school – extracurricular activities such as sports, band, drama presentations, school newspapers, school dances, and most kinds of socialization were absent. The “basics?” They were there but often in a very watered down and uninteresting fashion. Remember workbooks? Imagine how engaging they are when moved online.

Cue moral panic. As has happened before when conservative governments are in power, a crisis is created by the government so that the minister can come to the rescue of those poor students who are losing ground and may then never find the path to meaningful employment. Families are made to believe that only a nose-to-the-grindstone kind of schooling can save their children from a fate of illiteracy and innumeracy.

But is this true and what do we all lose when this kind of back-to-basics, no frills in education attitude is adopted? Rather a lot, as it happens.

Many studies have shown that when a curriculum includes music and other arts, students’ scores on academic subjects improve. If the goal is to improve academic achievement and make learners more employable, why would we remove something that actually works in favour of doing something we know will be unsuccessful? A curriculum that fails to teach citizenship, creativity, and compassion is not doing our young people any favours. The so-called soft skills are, in fact, survival skills.

Employers and democracies at large need people who think, are empathetic and creative. If we want and need innovation to solve the world’s problems, we need to remember what Einstein said. “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Back to basics will get us nowhere fast.

And, lest we forget, freedom of expression, for teachers and students is hampered by a back-to-basics attitude. How can a creative teacher help students explore their world when they must adhere to a rigid curriculum? How will imaginative learners explore their ideas and their diverse communities when they are spending all their time regurgitating back-to-basics facts? While we all want our young people to be knowledgeable and successful, we need to appreciate that there are many ways to achieve this goal.

If we allow our governments to take the lazy way out, to throw simple solutions at complex issues, to cut funding in a way that looks as if they are increasing it, we all lose out.