A Principal’s Perspective: Back to Basics

Darrell Lonsberry – Connect Charter School Principal

It seems as though the pendulum is swinging once again, this time motivated by some people who are espousing a back to basics approach to mathematics education, in large part as a response to the most recent PISA results. I don’t want to remain mute on this, as mathematics education is near and dear to my heart. One of the difficulties in using results from standardized tests such as PISA, TIMSS or PIRLS to compare nations on the quality of their educational systems, and even in determining change over time within a single system, is that these tests often do not measure those things that teachers would say are most important. While some may purport to measure these things, I haven’t yet run into a standardized tests that adequately and appropriately measures a student’s ability to think creatively, to persevere in a challenging task (these international tests are all timed), to collaborate through a problem, to use research strategies to find missing information, to share their learning in novel and effective ways, to access expertise when it is required, etc. I don’t want to come across as trying to justify lower results by blaming the test, but in considering the results we must also look at what students are actually being asked to do.

To be clear, I am not satisfied that schools in Alberta generally have found an appropriate balance of engaging students on challenging problem-based tasks that help to develop deeper thinking about particular curricula, and the need to reinforce basic facts that ideas, when not mastered, can significantly impair a student’s ability to learn the more complex aspects of problem-solving. Students need to know their times tables, they must have a sound understanding of principles of grammar and spelling, they must have a basic and fundamental level of physical well-being, and they must be exposed to a variety of art forms. Students must also need to know that all of that knowledge is not important in and of itself; it is important because it allows us to dig more deeply into our learning in ways that we couldn’t if we didn’t have a fundamental understanding of the basics. Too often, though, the knowledge of the basics is seen as a destination in and of itself.

I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Yong Zhao speak at a conference. He is a Chinese educational researcher who studies the effects of globalism on educational systems (in addition to a couple of other research themes). He has pointed out that the systems that are often at the top of the results lists for PISA, TIMSS, etc., while happy with that notoriety, are not pleased with the outcome of their educational systems. Have a look at this article for his thoughts on the matter: http://zhaolearning.com/2013/12/02/reading-the-pisa-tea-leaves-who-is-responsible-for-finland%E2%80%99s-decline-and-the-asian-magic/

I guess that what I am trying to say is that this sort of large-scale standardized testing is extremely problematic, and we can’t put too much emphasis on the results – even when they are good. This is a remarkably complicated topic of discussion and I must say that, despite the frustration I sometimes feel upon the recurrence of these themes based on alarmist reactions to a single measure, I believe that schools need to ensure that parents and the greater society understand why math looks different now than it did when they went to school.


3 thoughts on “A Principal’s Perspective: Back to Basics

  1. Darrell, as you observe the assessment of student learning is a very complex and at the same time important process. Through your very well-written blog you have shared some significant insights and articulated a viewpoint on assessment which I certainly support. Hopefully your blog will generate a dialogue among our colleagues in education on this most important topic.


  2. Darrell,
    I appreciate that you shared your perspective on this topic. I agree with your suggestion that we have not yet found the optimal balance. I also believe that it would be detrimental to student success to chose either an operation or application based approach to the exclusion of the other.

    Students need basic skills, but teaching discrete skills in isolation will not help them apply concepts to real world situations. They need to be able to apply these ideas to a wide variety of problems. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses and no two people learn everything in the same way. They must experience multiple ways to approach unique situations so that they can find a strategy that will allow them to maximize their success. There is no disputing that students need to have a solid grounding in the 3 R's (reading, writing and arithmetic), but they also need to apply this knowledge using the 5 C’s (critical thinking, collaboration, communication, creativity and citizenship). Programs that focus on basic facts to the exclusion of everything else are not going to set students up for success. That being said, it is also important for students to have a solid grounding in basic skills so that they can apply this understanding at a deeper level.

    Although the issue is complex and at times controversial, they are important discussions to have. Rather than relying on the results from a single standardized test, we need try to come to an agreement over the attributes and skills we value and utilizing a backwards design, build a program with the end in mind. There is no doubt that some of the skills from exams such as PISA need to be covered, but I also believe that there are many more attributes that we need to foster in students if we want them to be successful and productive citizens in today’s (and tomorrow’s) society…


  3. Good morning, Darrell. Thank you for this post. I often wonder how, as school educators and leaders we can collaborate to effectively educate parents and society as a whole to help them “understand why math looks different now than it did when they went to school” as you so poignantly closed your posting. Maybe if more of us work together to share the same message across systems?


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