Thinking About Basics Skills and Higher Order Thinking (Again)

I’ve written about this in the past on the blog, but the topic has come back into my professional thinking, so I’ve capturing it again.

In 2008, I have a stroke and spent the summer learning to walk again. For the 20 years of my career in education until then, I had rejected the “back to the basics” movements in their many forms they are perpetuated. Basically, I understood the purpose of education to be promoting analysis, synthesis, creativity. Which are those higher order thinking skills we seem to always be chasing in our teaching.

My therapists had me performing exercise. I Perceived these to be the “back to basics” exercises. It was marked by practice. I was motivated, and I was happy to be regaining control of my body, but it was frustrating.

At one point, about 10 days into the most intensive therapy, I did an exercise and the therapist had me pau particular attention to what was happening in my ankles. I could feel them receiving to keep me balanced. I was feeling the systems relearn how to do what had been natural a few days earlier.

As I could not yet walk long distances, my therapist pushed me in a wheelchair from the fourth floor of the hospital and outside to the front side lawn that had a gravel service road dissecting the lawn. He had me take my first steps on to the lawn and then turn on to the gravel. Until then I had only walked on tiled and carpeted floors inside. My steps on the lawn and gravel were shaking. The therapist said, “Pay attention to your ankles.”

In that moment I understood teaching and learning in a new way. The purpose of the exercises was to strengthen the pathways between my brain and ankles so they would be available when I needed them when I was walking on grass and gravel. In the same way, out students need exercises in which we isolate and deconstruct skills so they can be learned and practiced so they are available when students attempt to use the knowledge and skill when engaged in the higher order thinking.

The problem is when educators adopt and either/ or approach their curriculum. It is not acceptable for educators to conclude “I teach the basic skills, so they are prepared for ‘the next class.’” Those next classes may never happen as “I teach the basics” can be used by each teacher. Further, if on teaches basics only without connecting them to prior learning and new situations, then we know those basics will be forgotten before the students get to the next class.

Alternatively, we cannot practice “higher-order thinking” skills in the absence of understanding the situation and organizing the complexities into manageable pieces and beginning to design and evaluate solutions. None of this can be done in the absence of basic knowledge and skills.

We seem to be left with a “essential, but not sufficient” situation. Basic skills are essential for a good education, but they are not sufficient. Higher order thinking skills are also essential for a good education, but they are not sufficient.