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The Importance of the Basics

May 23, 2017

I am currently helping two children of a family friend with their schoolwork. What has surprised me the most is how little time seems to be spent on the basics in class. Now, this might sound trite, but without the basics, it really is almost impossible to develop a high level of proficiency. This is particularly true for subjects like English and mathematics that build on previous work.

Allow me to furnish two examples.

One of the most important concepts for a high school students to master in mathematics is negative numbers and how they work. For instance, a negative number multiplied by a negative number yields a positive result. In contrast, a negative number multiplied by a positive number gives a negative result. For convenience, this can be summarised as:

  • positive x positive = positive
  • negative x negative = positive
  • negative x  positive = negative
  • positive x negative = negative

Now, the rules for division are the same since division is simply the opposite of multiplication. Where things get complicated (relatively speaking) is addition and subtraction. In simple terms:

  • Adding a negative is like subtracting a positive
  • Subtracting a negative is like adding a positive

What makes this complicated is that when you add a negative number to a positive number, the sign of the result depends on which number (the positive number or the negative number) had a larger absolute value. This means that the sign of the result must be determined on a case by case basis, unlike with multiplication and division where the rules can simply be applied in a more general sense.

What I’ve noticed in the two people I’m helping – and in others I’ve encountered – is that it is very easy to make mistakes when adding and subtracting negative numbers. The most striking thing, however, is how little time is spent drilling students. Instead, they are simply given some rules and a few questions before being introduced to more difficult material.

However, this, I believe, is a mistake. When dealing with something like negative numbers, the best way to make sure that people learn is to not only give them the rules but give them a lot of questions, so they can practice using those rules until they are almost instinctual (i.e., they don’t even have to think before using them). This is especially important when you consider the fact that dealing with negative numbers is something that occurs over and over and over again, and being unable to handle them confidently will only make things harder than they need to be.

The second example that I’d like to bring up is formal writing in English.

As someone who has acquired a PhD, I am perhaps more familiar with formal writing than I would like to be (nothing kills the soul faster than overuse of formal, academic language). I have also had the pleasure of teaching students at a university level. In my experience, the overwhelming majority of university students arrive at university with very little idea of how to write formally in English (e.g., essays, reports, etc.). Indeed, one of the things we would do for students was to hold tutorials giving them a crash course in how to write properly.

But where does this begin? Obviously, bemoaning it at a university level is soothing, but it hardly addresses the problem. The more I deal with high school students, the more certain I become that the problem begins there. Simply put, high school students are expected to do things like discuss the themes and techniques employed in film, poetry, prose, and so on – but without receiving much instruction at all about how to actually do that.

Let me make it clear that I am not heaping the blame on teachers. Two people in my family are teachers (albeit primary/elementary), but I know plenty of teachers. Overwhelmingly, they have noticed the same things as me, and they have come to many of the same conclusions. Alas, they are increasingly being buried under red tape, administrative minutiae, and syllabi that have obviously been written by people who have either never set foot in a classroom or last did so in the age of the dinosaurs.

In any case, let me return to the topic at hand. The ability to identify themes and the techniques used to convey them is not necessarily related to the ability to explain those ideas in prose. Specifically, formal writing demands a certain rigour of thought and a certain style, and simply knowing what you want to write about is not enough.

Consider the basic structure of an essay. You might have an introduction, the body of the essay, and then the conclusion. I am always horrified by how few students realise that simply dividing the essay into thirds is not the correct way to go about it. The introduction and conclusion are not the same length as the body of the essay. If they are, then something has gone seriously wrong.

One of the children I am helping had an assignment in which they had to write an essay about a particular topic. They had discussed it with their friends, and they had, together, come to the conclusion that the above strategy was sound. That is, they thought it would be fine to have one third of the essay be the introduction, another third be the body, and the final third be the conclusion.

This is madness, and the fact that this wasn’t addressed at some point worries me. What worries me even more is that the students aren’t even given one of those handouts where they roughly outline the structure of an essay and what each part should do. Admittedly, these handouts are only rough guides, but even so, this is probably the first real essay that this student has had to write in high school. I would rather they receive too much guidance at this point than too little since it can be very hard to fix bad habits.

Looking at the work of the high school students I know, what strikes me is the tendency of the syllabus to focus on themes and techniques, which is all well and good, but the basic purpose of English, to my mind, is to teach students how to communicate using the written word. It might very well be fantastic to be able to know what the themes of a poem are, but if you can’t explain any of that in coherent fashion, then I would argue much of the potential value is lost.

What I would prefer to see is a focus on the basics of communication. Teach students how to write an essay (and other forms of writing, e.g., reports, reviews, etc.) and teach it to them early. Focus on providing the students with a scaffold for formal writing. That is, give them the basic structure of the different forms of writing and teach them how to fill out that structure.

In the case of an essay this would involve not only teaching them the basic structure of an essay (introduction, body, and conclusion) but also how these parts fit together.

For example, the introduction must provide the basic context of the topic (i.e., what you’re talking about and why it matters) as well as provide some idea of the direction the essay will take (e.g., what thesis you will be putting forward/what ideas you will be exploring). From there, the body of the essay discusses the points put forward in the introduction, expanding on them and addressing their relevance to the topic while supporting and advancing your thesis. Furthermore, each paragraph of the body should flow logically into the next, ideally in a manner that steadily builds a foundation for the soundness of your thesis. The conclusion, then, should summarise the main ideas and round off the essay, stating your conclusion while perhaps pointing to future avenues of inquiry.

Critically, I believe these things should be taught in context. That is, students should be given copies of good, mediocre, and bad essays (or other forms of formal writing) and taught what makes each example good, mediocre, or bad. I believe that seeing examples and learning what makes them tick, so to speak, would help so many students develop a stronger grasp of the intricacies of formal writing. Teach them how to take an essay apart, so they can build one of their own.

This would, of course, necessitate taking time away from the study of set texts, but I think this would be time well spent. Once someone knows how to write a good essay, they can use that skill over and over and over again in the years to come. In contrast, learning the details of a particular text will not help someone as much since they will eventually have to move on to another text.

In summary, the basics matter. A strong foundation will not only last for years but also serve a student well across a variety of areas. Knowing how to properly handle negative numbers will make not only high school math but also university math far easier. Knowing how to write a good essay will help not just for the study of one text but also in the study of other texts and even in other subjects (e.g., the social sciences).

If you want to read more about my thoughts on writing, you can find those here.

I also write original fiction, which you can find here.

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From → Education, Musings

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