Selling the Sizzle Not the Steak

Imagine if you had Ed conferences with names like, Explicit Vocabulary Instruction: A 21c Imperative. What about, Embracing the New World: Foundations in Literacy. Perhaps, Disrupting the Status Quo: Mathematics from the Ground Up: Building the Foundations.  I’d wager Ed conferences like this would  often be very poorly attended.  If the conference was called, Techpreneurs: The new Revolution, educators would be jumping out of trees to attend. Some educators don’t want the steak, they want the sizzle. A recent experience suggests to me we need more concentration on the steak.


I spent a half -day working with some year 9 boys as they worked on a student-directed activity.  They explained to me that they were confident with what they were doing and had 3 years experience of driving their own learning at the school.  They were quiet and courteous and in the few hours I was there, very engaged in the task.  Unfortunately for the boys there were major stumbling blocks. None of the small group were what you would call ‘fluent’ readers, and their oral language skills were not strong. It slowed everything down.


They were constantly Googling what words meant, and then trying to understand these words in the context they were presented.  It became apparent that one or two boys were lacking some basic phonics understanding.  At one point they had to call on some mathematical skills to calculate the area required for a skate park.  The iPhone calculators were being busily tapped but again this didn’t go well.  At one point I was asked if multiplying by 100, should you add two or three zeros.  They calculated the perimeter of their skate park when they really thought it was the area they were calculating.


I spoke to the teacher before I left. She was well aware that the boys lacked foundational literacy and numeracy skills and explained she sees this happening every year.  She provided extra support for the boys in this group but explained there were plenty more in her other classes. She praised the boys for being creative in their task, (unfortunately their ideas stretched engineering principles to the limit), and explained that they were hard workers who ‘really had a go’.  They also had a good idea of what a modern skate park should have in it, although they struggled to articulate this.


I admired the teacher. She spoke softly and when she spoke she commanded attention, I didn’t see any students not listening. They laughed with her and there seemed to be a good relationship between students and teacher. When the students started working collaboratively she moved around unobtrusively stopping to help if required. I liked the projects the students had embarked on, (choosing a local issue to tackle) and they appeared excited and engaged in their discussions.


Still I left disheartened. We have a huge cohort of students with poor literacy and numeracy foundations, and a limited range of general knowledge.  At the same time we have something of an obsession from many in the profession to devalue knowledge, to insist that kids don’t need to assemble an ever-growing body of knowledge.  We seem to have gone from a ‘love of learning’ outlook to a ‘love of Google and You Tube’ outlook.

It’s often about making students more creative and innovative. It’s about being entrepreneurial so they may flourish in the rapidly changing 21c.  It should be self-evident that poor literacy and numeracy skills hinder creativity and innovation.  In my experience few people pushing 21c skills as the answer to the future want to acknowledge this, at least publicly.  Content is a very dirty word.


While this was just few hours with these boys, anecdotally this is a common theme among my teaching friends in high schools. Students unable to adequately access the curriculum presented to them. This is a massive problem for students who are struggling with foundational skills as it is. If you want some kids to be disengaged with learning, this is a surefire go to method.


We educators want to be excited, inspired and entertained by stories and chats about creativity and innovation, and the latest cutting edge technology that will engage learners.  We have the charismatic educelebrities to deliver this in spades.  They are falling over themselves to get at us. I think we need to stop for a moment, hit pause, and decide if this is where we want to go.

Until we accept and place a focus on the yawning chasm of missing foundational skills in so many of our students, then we will have to acknowledge that inequity is our foundation, and we plan to build on it.


If I don’t speak to you beforehand, see you at ‘Reading with Comprehension: Global Visions for the 22c’*


*Not a thing





2 thoughts on “Selling the Sizzle Not the Steak

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