In Order to Rise High, We Must Dig Low

Helen Abadzi

You are probably reading this blog effortlessly on electronic media. What do you need to know in order to do this? Think in terms of manipulating the smartphone, perceiving words, and instantly comprehending every word. The concepts needed to analyse the meaning of this text are really dependent on those prerequisites. If one of the above components were missing, would you be able to access the text?

Working memory and foundational skills

These prerequisites are an example of foundational skills. They have one feature in common: instant, fluent, speedy execution. This effortless processing is the answer to an essential brain limitation. Our thinking space—that is, our working memory—is extremely narrow. It holds about 7 items for about 12 seconds. Contents constantly get wiped out, leaving behind a conclusion that we use for the next load. Items from long-term storage rush into this evanescent space and enable reasoning. Working memory is also unconscious, so we have an illusion of continuity in our thinking. Sometimes we get a glimpse of the limits; we may get distracted and lose our train of thought. “What was I saying?”

This obscure working memory function calls the shots and ultimately decides what you get to think about. Lofty philosophical inferences are impossible if even one of the prerequisite skills is missing. You re-read, look up in dictionaries, strain, and probably give up. (For more on the architecture of human memory, refer to this blog on working memory and the Sustainable Development Goals.)

Foundational skills can be illustrated as ladders leading to the 30th floor of a building. Each ladder may have thousands of rungs. Each rung is a link of some information items. If a rung is missing here or there, you can raise your legs or get some help. But if 4-5 rungs are missing in multiple places along the ladder, you are stuck.

People attempting to climb ladders, some of which are missing rungs, in order to reach careers in coding, art, and teaching

Moving up a rung on the ladder requires practice. Let’s say you are learning arithmetic operators or algebraic equations. Execution is initially slow and effortful. But with practice and feedback, sequences are rearranged, and the performance speeds up. Individual items get linked into chains, then small chunks join up and become large chunks. There is an initial period of fast improvement, followed by slow, step-wise improvement. Continued practice somehow moves the process outside our consciousness, into implicit long-term memory. Then you can talk and drive, and comment on a text while reading it, or play the piano and sing. And whenever the skill is needed, you quickly retrieve it and perform it.

Digging low to rise high

Governments and donors emphasise “21st-century” skills, such as creativity, critical thinking, and communication. To children or adults lacking foundational skills, these are confabulations. These worthwhile concepts are possible only if your working memory can hold all the prerequisites. So bizarrely, in order to rise high, we must dig low. We must first create foundational skills.

How? The preparation for stuffing enough information instantly into working memory looks suspiciously like the traditional drills that are often deemed outmoded. But they became traditional because centuries ago they were found to work. To perform effortlessly, we must practice deliberately, like musicians and athletes. Then groups of neurons become specialised for the relevant tasks. And as students get faster, the exercises should get longer and more complex.

But there is much disdain and even ridicule for practice or memorisation. We hear often that if you need facts, you can just google them. However, you cannot google an external source fast enough for your working memory. It’s simpler to google your own long-term memory. But implicit memory and working memory are unconscious. Educators and policymakers are not trained in memory functions. We easily neglect what we cannot see.

Furthermore, we see children of middle-class environments become fluent in many basic skills early on. They get hours of extra practice at home, and their brains are well-nourished and developed. The inclination is to cover the basic steps quickly in order to get to creativity quickly, or even to skip basic skills instruction altogether. Many educational settings recommend fun and exploration, but if students spend much time on relaxed and non-curricular activities, they may read or calculate more slowly and consciously. Socioeconomic strata differ in nutrition, stimulation, and instructional time at home or school. Curricula that work for most well-to-do students hold back the poor and create learning poverty. To enable automaticity, curricula ought to be explicit about deliberate practice.  

Measuring automaticity in foundational skills

Consideration of memory functions leads to a surprising conclusion: Tests do not really measure what you know! They measure the information and inferences that can be retrieved in a few seconds! You may remember an answer an hour later, but it will be too late for your test scores. Disregard of fluency is one reason behind the backlash against testing in some countries. Because curricula nowadays focus on complex tasks, students perform the prerequisites slowly. Then teachers may be penalised in evaluations and need to “teach to the test.” Explicit practice, homework, and remediation would enable lower-income students to rise higher soon.

The processing speed of various prerequisites must be measured and optimised for various grades. It is important also to determine the lowest limit that would enable children to rise on the skills ladder even if they miss a rung. For example, at what performance speed do you no longer pay much attention to what you do? One example is 60 words per minute of reading and should be attained in Grades 1-2. At that level, you may no longer pay attention to single letters; but word identification still takes time, and to analyse a complex text, you need perhaps 300 words per minute. The rate can be attained in the higher secondary grades. For math, one measure is correctly operated single digits per minute, and a fluency standard could be set for number of equations correctly solved per minute by 8th graders.

There used to be speeded tests that have fallen out of favour because their role was not understood. Standardised tests, particularly for lower-income populations, could have an explicit speed component of the prerequisite fundamental skills as well as the applications, as tests are currently constructed.

Implications: Prioritising automaticity in foundational skills

The definition and measurement of foundational skills ought to be based on automaticity. The donor community seems to be learning this lesson. UNICEF and the MICS-Foundational Learning module measure the same set of foundational learning skills, from ages 7 to 14. Failing to perform implies inability to progress to the minimum proficiency level at later grades.

Though basic or foundational skills refer to the lower grades, every subject matter has prerequisites. Those who enroll in engineering college without fluency in calculus often drop out before the end of the first semester. Every curriculum for every level should identify prerequisite skills that require fluency and provide avenues for remediation.

Fluency measures do not seem very sexy, but they reflect underlying neurocognitive processes. Donors and governments must develop policies about foundational skills. It's important to use them and communicate to policymakers why these “dumb” targets are prerequisites to 21st-century skills.

Helen Abadzi recently spoke about memory functions and foundational skills in low- and middle-income countries during a RISE webinar titled, ‘Why Alignment for Foundational Skills Matters: Cognitive Science Insights and Real-World Implications’. A recording of the webinar, which also included presentations from Julius Atuhurra and Daniel Rodriguez-Segura, and input from Dzingai Mutumbuka, is available on the event webpage.

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RISE blog posts reflect the views of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation or our funders.