Op Ed

Back to basics? ….. No, we cannot go there

Greg Cairnduff, M Ed, BA, Dip Ed, MACE, Deputy Managing Editor

3 November 2013

I have been involved with education long enough to remember what it was like in the days before the Information Age, the era prior to Information and Communication Technologies becoming pervasive in our lives.

Around the world, people’s daily lives are affected by computer technology in one way or another. I was recently told that the Sherpa guides on the high peaks of the Himalayas are able to keep in touch with their families on a daily basis though the use of satellite phones and it’s not hard to find thousands of seemingly incongruous examples of the IT being part of everyday life. Here in Thailand we see monks on their morning alms walks, using smart phones, or on any visit to the hill tribes of the north, the visitor will the satellite discs dotted throughout the village bringing worldwide television into the lives of the tribesmen.

I don’t think anyone would argue with that assertion.

Universal use of ICTs has changed our world. But what about education in the 21st Century? Has it changed? Have the students changed? Have the teachers changed?

Concomitant questions could be:  Has education changed too much? Are changes in students helpful to society and to the students as individuals? Do teachers actually need to change? How can student, school, and national educational performance stand the demands for constant improvement?

These questions make for interesting debate in our society, not just among educators, but among the whole community, interestingly, they are questions that are constantly debated in countries at all levels of economic development.

Here in Thailand educational issues are always evident in the news media,  but the same is true of the news media in Australia, and on a recent visit to the United Kingdom, I was an avid follower of the debate about what is being done to lift educational performance …. “ As Ofsted pointed out, if you are a poor child going to school in some parts of Britain, you’re less likely to do well than poor children, here in Tower Hamlets”[i]  Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg reported in the Evening Standard on 24th October, talking about the success of the London Challenge, a project to get neighbouring schools to work together to push up standards.  

What has this got to do with my opening statement which essentially says “I have been around education long enough to remember what education was like before ICTs changed the world”.  In the 1970s educational policy makers knew the  advent of the Information Age would irrevocably change education, but they were gazing into a crystal ball when trying to predict what life would be like in the 21st Century. They could not have known or truly understood the challenges of change that ICTs would bring to teaching and learning. I can clearly remember a curriculum innovation of the late 1970s in Australia …. It was called “Leisure Education” the hypothesis being that computer technology would endow society with much more leisure time.

Was the hypothesis right?

It is true that there have been massive changes in the nature of work and ICTs have eliminated many mundane labour intensive jobs, but what people having more leisure? Have ICTs brought shorter working days ? Longer holidays? I would not be too sure about that. But we can be sure that they have changed the nature of the way people work and live in the 21st century.

So what has all of this to do with “going back to Basics” or expressed another way, going back to the three time worn fundamentals of education around the world, commonly and colloquially called the “three Rs” that is, reading, writing and arithmetic.

Among the national education debates referred to above there are calls to “go back to the basics” because children cannot read as well, write as fluently, or calculate as well as in the era prior to the Information Age and ICTs are made the scapegoats for such problems.

We should never go back to the “3 Rs” as the basics of education, we cannot, because the world is not the same as the 70s that I referred to above. The crystal ball did not and could not, convey to educational planners the enormous impact of technologies on people’s lives. The kinds of employment and life opportunities that young people face in the 21st Century are immeasurably different  from those of their grandparents and even their parents’ generation. The lamentations heard in the community and the media [in Thailand anyway] are often about the lack of English language among the community, the lack of mental agility with numeracy, the poor grammar and spelling that they have in their native language.

The cries for a return to the “basics” simply do not reflect that the world has moved on.

A large body of research into how changing times and new technologies  require new literacies, informs a much broader approach to teaching and learning in schools.

Commentators on this website have praised the Thai government for its “one tablet per child” program. The introduction of such a universal program, recognises the need for education in Thailand to become oriented to the needs of students and the nation in the 21st Century.

This does not mean that reading and writing have been abandoned, it means that reading and writing are expanded beyond the limited literacy of printed books and paper to a more diverse range of texts using ICTS.

The 3 Rs will not help students use computers efficiently, search the internet, access electronic information and then analyse and synthesise that information.

The “back to basics” approach will not help prepare young people for an uncertain changing world where those qualities quoted in Paul Tough’s book,  How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character[ii] such as adaptability to change, resilience, determination and perseverance , are more important than whether they can use cursive hand writing or recite the times tables.

The back to basics calls are probably as wrong as the 70s calls for “education for leisure “ courses.

None of this is to say that ICTs have made the job of teachers easier – they have made the teacher’s work much more complex.

This month’s article provides an interesting discussion of the impact of ICTs on learning to read. We hope you will find this article stimulating.

[i] Evening Standard, London, 24 October 2013, p12

[ii] Tough, P ,  How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York 2012

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