Room for the Basics

There’s a common sentiment I get from teachers when trying to promote the eMINTS instructional model. There’s concern that the focus on higher levels of learning and technology use neglects learning the “basics”. This is a fair criticism as a strong knowledge base is often needed before moving on to more complex topics and skills. However, the eMINTS instructional model versus a more traditional teaching methods is not a zero-sum proposition.

Our instructional model is not the only pedagogy and instructional strategies that suffers from this criticism. Most progressive or new approaches to teaching are met with skepticism. Every teacher with ten or more years of experience can point to cycles in instructional “fads” that come and go with the passing of each school year. Still, it does not mean that new methodology should be ignored as there is often research to back up its implementation.

Many of these newer strategies aim to address 21st century skills and/or the ISTE NETS standards, causing many teachers to worry about knowledge bases from previous centuries being lost in the shuffle. Again, this is a fair criticism, but it misses what these initiatives actually promote. This new focus attempts to address how students learn now and what kinds of skills will be important for them to succeed in the future, a future we can hardly predict.

The trouble is that there are misconceptions about adopting new instructional strategies or buying into new pedagogy. With the eMINTS instructional model, as with most progressive pedagogy, we are not ignoring “the basics” or rote learning. These topics, standards, and methods still have their place in the 21st century classroom. This is why models such as Bloom’s Taxonomy, Web’s Depth of Knowledge, and Grappling’s Technology and Learning Spectrum all include basic levels of learning and technology use.

So, I figured I would try to demonstrate the many ways in which our instructional model as well as many other newer ways of thinking about teaching and learning actually can address the need for basic knowledge.

Inquiry does address basic skills and knowledge.
Inquiry is an instructional strategy that is shaped by questions generated by students when presented with a problem or scenario. To answer these questions, a significant amount of information must be gathered and learned. Students pick up the most important parts of content and skills along the way to answering their questions and addressing the essential question set forth by the teacher. The key is to design a high-quality lesson or unit and develop good questions that point students in the right direction.

Problem-based lessons need the basics to be successful.
In problem-based learning (PBL), real-life problems are the center of the learning. However, to solve these problems, students have to develop and research basic information in order to obtain the skills and knowledge necessary to solve these problems. Again, the design of such lessons as well as the guidance teachers provide are the key to making these learning experiences successful.

If one spends all their time on lower level learning, isn’t he ignoring higher level learning?
I get the worry over not covering all the facts, but aren’t we just lowering the level of intellect and rigor by settling for the most basic of basic information? By teaching every low-level standard or only asking rote learning from our students, we are doing them a disservice and neglecting higher levels of thinking. They could gain this sort of instruction from the Khan Academy or Wikipedia. Isn’t it the job of teachers to inspire our students to accomplishing something greater than passing a test?

It isn’t actually possible to memorize every state standard in a single school year.
I often hear that there isn’t enough time to teach every low-level standard or every topic in a text book over an entire year. So, when is there time to develop higher level learning among students? What we need to do is select the most important standards or the critical curriculum. Then, through student-centered, constructivist methods, students are able to develop analysis, innovation, evaluation, and other high level skills while obtaining this critical curriculum along the way. Plus, a hidden curriculum will fill in some of those holes we worry about most.

If the goal for students to be able to perform on their own, how does rote learning alone prepare them to do that?
One of the struggles students have with standardized tests is that there is no way to adequately prepare them for every question they will face. Sometimes, they have to use some critical thinking and analytic skills of their own to figure out a problem. These sorts of skills are not developed when students are only memorizing facts and processes at school. The skills necessary to handle unknown content on a standardized test can only be taught and nurtured if time is set aside for this work.

Cooperative learning and sharing are ways for students to teach each other in ways that we can’t.
Most projects we do as professionals are done in teams. Collaborative groups of teachers write curriculum. School policies are determined in staff meetings. We share teaching ideas at professional development sessions or through social media. Wouldn’t students also benefit from collaborative work? There are ways of understanding we are not able explain the way some students can. Sometimes, it is impossible for a student to obtain all the knowledge necessary in a short period of time to complete a task on his or her own. Through cooperative learning, students can share thinking, knowledge, and responsibilities that allow for low level content to be learned while practicing high level skills. Plus, cooperative learning can take away some of the pressure on teachers to cover content, which brings me to…

Just because we have taught it, doesn’t mean mean it was learned.
I could fill a library with the factual information I’ve forgotten over the years. However, I know how to find this information and use it to make connections or generate my own content. If we spend all our time teaching information that may be forgotten, why not teach in a way that is meaningful to students’ lives, promoting skills that they can apply in a variety of ways? Let’s find new ways to teach both efficiently and effectively.

Non-traditional methods also require the structure that makes any lesson successful.
I often hear that teachers worry about losing control if they can’t teach the same way they have always taught while teaching rudimentary skills and content that’s easy to understand. The reason methods like inquiry or cooperative learning result in chaos is because teachers have forgotten to include the structures necessary for them to succeed. For example, cooperative learning structures have very specific features such as assigning student roles and planning for interdependence that insure these activities work. Cooperative learning is not just putting students into groups with little or no direction while hoping for the best.

The eMINTS instructional model and other related pedagogy are researched-based approaches to educating today’s students that work. There is time, but we have to make a commitment to incorporating new ways of teaching into our daily routines. While some worry about students learning the basics, I worry that they won’t be able to do anything with this information once they receive it. 19th century instructional strategies and “getting back to the basics” are not the answer for the 21st century learner, particularly twelve years into the new century.

It’s time to embrace new ways of teaching, even if it’s just a little bit. Experiment with the methods you learn from eMINTS or from other progressive instructional models. Insert a little here and a little there, mixing new strategies with your old ones. Also, remember that you are not just teaching students to remember some content for tomorrow’s test, they have to take the lessons¬†facilitated in your classroom with them into the future beyond state standardized tests.

How do you feel about the eMINTS instructional model? What other instructional models have you hesitated to try? How do you insure that your students get the basics while also promoting higher order thinking?

Zac Early is an instructional specialist with the eMINTS National Center.