Fires in the Mind

Basic skills, in a new light

Anyone who cares about things done well—and what kind of practice goes into that—should take a look at Mike Rose’s call for “a sea-change in the way we think about instruction in basic skills” to under-prepared young adults.

His inspiring commentary, just published in the Chronicle of Higher Education and on his blog, pushes back against the prevailing belief that remediation in math, reading, and writing academic is low-status teaching to low-status students. And he challenges the assumption that students must plow through the smallest units of learning before they work up to challenging thinking.

Rose knows better. A brilliant writer himself, he has also long taught remedial college writing. His many books (such as Possible Lives) reveal how alive he is to the intelligence evidenced in the actions and insights of people of every background, whether or not it comes from formal schooling.

Here he calls for a prestigious national institution—“The Smithsonian of Basic Skills”—that would devote itself to the theory and practice of how we develop and learn these critical skills. He asks:

If a young adult is having trouble with fractions, for example, how did his misunderstandings and flawed procedures develop? What formal or informal mathematical knowledge does he have that can be tapped? How does one access that cognitive history and lead the student to analyze and remedy it? How, then, does one proceed to teach in a way appropriate to an adult with that history?

I love these questions, and of course they also apply to teaching students at earlier ages. They are, in fact, fundamental to the purpose of our Practice Project at WKCD.

We start with conversations that draw forth what students already know and care about. Then we lead the student to analyze and remedy that cognitive history. With practice—at the important things, in the right way—students get better and better at the fundamental concepts that transcend academic disciplines and fields of work.

So what are the important things, and what’s the right way to practice them? For my part, I want to spend time in “The Smithsonian of Basic Skills” finding out! Meanwhile, how do you teach basic skills to your students, while keeping them deeply involved in interesting work? I’ll send a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind to the best replies we receive.