Are The “Basics” Not So Basic After All?

I just happened to stumble upon this recent article by Stuart Shanker entitled, Why Does My Child Hate Math? It was in reading this post that I had an aha moment: maybe the basics aren’t so basic after all.

In Shanker’s article, he talks about the time that his daughter asked for, “two pieces of toast.” This may not seem so monumental, and yet, for a beginning mathematician, the thinking involved in this kind of understanding is big. 

  • She’s demonstrating a concept of number.
  • She’s subitizing.
  • She’s viewing her world mathematically.

It’s basic — and amazing — experiences like this one that I get to see regularly as a Kindergarten educator.

    • It’s the child that counts, “1, 2, 3 blocks,” and then finally tells me on Friday that there are “3 blocks.” It’s no longer just, “1, 2, 3.”
    • It’s recognizing small amounts without always needing to count them (subitizing).

    • It’s the math stories that show me a beginning understanding of subtraction.

    • It’s the estimating and measurement that make their way into design discussions outside.

    • It’s the addition and subtraction thinking that make their way into the creative play in our forest.

    • It’s using measurement terms in conversations, and showing their understanding of measurement in everyday experiences.

There’s criticism of the “new math,” and a need to go “back to basics.” But Shanker reminds me that “the basics” are not being forgotten, and when we see these basics in the everyday — and the thinking that leads to many student realizations — maybe these basics are actually far more complex than we thought.

What I love most about the anecdotes in Shanker’s article is that he was always being responsive to kids. He watched and listened to his daughter, and then he extended her learning as he observed what she shared. She demonstrated new skills, but he also supported the development of additional skills based on what she knew. The Kindergarten Program Document is very responsive to students, and actually puts children at the centre of learning. This is also what Shanker does.

If we always saw children first, and addressed expectations in response to a student’s demonstration of skills, would we be having different conversations around math? What about around other subjects? Basics matter, but is there complexity in basic skills, and is some of this complexity in knowing when children are ready for these “basics?” Shanker’s article reminds us that we really need to watch, listen, and connect with kids, and truly celebrate the joy that is math!


2 thoughts on “Are The “Basics” Not So Basic After All?

  1. I always love the way you share your thinking through reflective practice.

    Parents want the best for their children. They are comfortable with math as they learned it, often a quarter century or more earlier, and even if it didn’t work well for them. It’s what they know and it is their comfort zone.

    We don’t do a good job of sharing with them the powerful new understandings we have about how children learn.

    Dr. Jean Clinton speaks often about the ‘serve and return’ nature of learning, how children do or say something, and we respond, and they respond to us. Children are at the centre of their learning.

    Dr. Cathy Fosnot talks about math learning that aligns with child development. She helps teachers move children forward through the use of contextual problems that help children become more efficient in their thinking and learning.

    “Basics” often refers to linear thinking about learning, that ALL children will solve problems using a specific algorithm by a specific age. This is often curriculum focused rather than child development focused. Research has shown that teaching a child the standard algorithm too early can be detrimental to long term learning, yet parents advocate for early teaching of standard algorithms.

    Unfortunately, poorly implemented child centred and constructivist approaches can tarnish the perception of this style of teaching. Thank you for continuing to open your practice to help others learn about what it can look like when we respond to student learning needs as they arise, and help children own their learning.

    • Thank you so much, Donna, for the kind words, but also the mention of both Dr. Jean Clinton’s and Dr. Cathy Fosnot’s work: two of my favourites. You have me thinking about why parents advocate for this standard algorithm approach. Is it because that’s what they know? Maybe they haven’t read the research that you mentioned here that this approach can be “detrimental to long term learning.” Your comment just makes in clearer to me that we have to get parents involved in these academic discussions and learning opportunities. Your comment speaks to the need for visible learning, and showing parents and educators what’s possible. Kids often amaze us with what they can do. But when it comes to child-centred, constructivist approaches, there’s still more learning to do. We need to dialogue and share what these approaches might actually look like at home and in the classroom.


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