Education Commentary

Balance Among Skills ‘Key’ to Instruction

By Paul L. Williams — May 31, 1989 5 min read

Gerald W. Bracey’s Commentary on the relationship between “basic” and “higher order” skills (“Advocates of Basic Skills ‘Know What Ain’t So,”’ April 5, 1989) misses the mark on several counts.

He appears to have used as the sole basis for his arguments a quote attributed to me in an earlier issue of Education Week. Unfortunately, the context in which I made my comment was not fully represented in the article.

I had noted that many parents and teachers with whom I have spoken are concerned about the uncritical adoption of instructional programs stressing higher-order thinking at the expense of basic skills.

These concerns are grounded in the belief, which I share, that:

Proven curricula for teaching higher-order skills are rare. Plunging ahead into programs that have not demonstrated positive effects on children, regardless of how appealing they may sound intuitively, does not make sense.

A balance among all components of the instructional program must be maintained so that time is preserved for those skills children need to perform successfully in school and on the job.

In examining these concerns, I must dismiss Mr. Bracey’s contentions that professionals in the field of testing “know nothing about children,” that one’s knowledge about how children learn depends upon one’s place of employment, and that testing professionals “spend no time in schools.” These allegations are absurd--and surely Mr. Bracey knows that they are.

The implementation of programs fostering a full range of intellectual functioning is a goal everyone involved in the educational process would like to achieve. Recently, and correctly, new attention has been focused on cognitive outcomes that are popularly characterized as “higher order” skills.

This emphasis is in part a response to the belief that the curricular pendulum has swung too far in the direction of “basic” skills. That movement was predictable, given worries about the apparent inability of many of the nation’s young people to handle even fundamental academic skills.

The curricula developed at the state and district levels to deal with such deficiencies were generally known as minimum-competency programs.

But in the effort to install such programs rapidly, quality was compromised initially. Scarce financial and instructional resources were allocated for programs of debatable value.

Similarly, the well-intentioned but uncritical acceptance of approaches purporting to enhance higher cognitive functioning could easily do more harm than good. Mr. Bracey seems to have fallen into this trap. Just because an educational objective is important does not mean we understand it well enough to transfer it effectively into the classroom.

For example, Mr. Bracey suggests that instructionally we face an either/or situation--that basic and higher-order skills are somehow at odds. He also appears to believe that simply starting to teach more higher-order skills would be a relatively easy task.

But both of these positions conflict with current research. Recent studies indicate that the dynamic between general heuristics and domain-specific knowledge, along with self-monitoring and transfer strategies, is critical to success in improving the learner’s cognitive sophistication. General heuristic methods operate effectively within a content frame of reference. The same research also suggests that our understanding of how these elements can be combined into an effective instructional program remains incomplete.

We should certainly move forward in attempting to identify methods that will have the greatest likelihood of success. But this task requires time-consuming, effortful study.

Standing firm and demanding high quality may be difficult, especially when there may be a perceived need at least to match what other districts are doing. But to falter could lead down the same roads we have traveled before, where our desires have outstripped our capabilities, and precious resources have been wasted.

The second widespread concern I have met with--that children receive a sound basis for success in school and in the job market--has broad societal implications. During the last 15 years in particular, apprehensions have arisen about schools’ success in imparting such fundamental skills as reading, writing, and computing. An international assessment recently conducted by the Educational Testing Service, for instance, placed American 13-year-olds dead last in mathematics and in the lower 25 percent in science among the 12 countries and Canadian provinces tested.

In this study, American youths were competitive in basic skills, but as the sophistication of the skills increased, their performance lagged further and further behind.

Mr. Bracey attributes this phenomenon to too much emphasis on basics and too little on higher-level skills. Added into his analysis is an indictment of nationally normed basic-skills tests, which in his judgment do nothing but reinforce lower skills at the expense of higher-order outcomes.

Clearly, Mr. Bracey has not carefully examined newer norm-referenced tests, which contain items precisely of the type that were used in the international assessment to measure more complex thinking and problem-solving skills.

Since norm-referenced tests reflect the predominant trends in the nation’s classrooms, those developed in the mid-1970’s contained a higher proportion of questions examining essential skills and a lower proportion of items on higher-order skills. These proportions have changed dramatically in the newer tests, mirroring the evolution of curricular approaches. This trend also suggests that the emphasis on basic skills of the last 15 years has paid off.

One reason for this success is that educators have had available to them results from norm-referenced basic-skills tests on which to plan instructional emphases.

But the key element remains a judicious balance of outcomes that meet the needs of as many students as possible. We cannot afford to conceive of basic skills and higher-order skills as antagonistic. In the end, the two are so intimately related that they merge in the broader goal of maximizing student potential.

A version of this article appeared in the May 31, 1989 edition of Education Week as Balance Among Skills ‘Key’ to Instruction