The principal said proudly, “Thank you, but we’re not interested. We’re a literacy and numeracy school”.

No one would dispute that students need to learn the basic skills involved in reading, writing and speaking. Yet these skills cannot be taught in isolation, or entirely in the abstract.

Students’ attention, engagement and investment need to be gained. Little can be learnt if students are not motivated or interested. A focus solely on the basics can be used to narrow education, to exclude those who have already mastered the basics at any level and to eviscerate students’ school years of meaning and purpose.

Let’s imagine two schools, at upper primary. The Literacy School drills students in decontextualised grammar exercises that research has shown do not make a difference to students’ skills.

Students spend long hours indoors, seated at screens, completing purchased programs written by low paid workers in multinational companies indifferent to the students and their interests. Click on the adjectives. The boy has a tall friend. The cat sat on a large mat. The little mouse ran across the floor.

This is couched as “digital literacy”: being able to click, to highlight and to “drag and drop” to prove basic competency and comprehension of metalanguage. These programs contain multiple errors or ambiguously phrased directives, but there is no way to question them.

When not staring at screens, the students listen to the teacher deliver direct instruction to dictate the “rules”. Essays must have five paragraphs. Paragraphs must have four sentences. Topic sentences must begin every paragraph. You must have no more than three ideas.

These are phoney rules, but there is no way to question them, or opportunity to challenge them. Rubrics reward compliance. Each essay set has a single topic, without choice. Why we should have a school uniform. What I did on my holidays. My pet. Only the teacher will read these essays.

Students who don’t care about uniforms, or did nothing on the holidays, or who don’t have pets, struggle to write these fake tasks. The students read bland, artificially-constructed texts and do boring comprehension questions on them. They memorise spellings from word lists and and don’t even learn meanings. All that matters is getting “the basics” right in the spelling test.

At the Garden School, students learn the basics through engagement with the natural world. They benefit from incidental movement and spend large amounts of each day out of doors.

Through their gardens, students build ecologies of purposeful communication. They find adjectives to describe the textures of soil or the taste of the first snowpeas in their journals. They compose poetry and music to describe how their garden changes through the seasons.

They learn the metalanguages of multiple disciplines as they discover the benefits of companion planting, the fractals of leaf veins, the impact of complementary colours in flower plantings and much more.

They photograph their gardens and make montages of images for the school foyer, learning the rules of composition. They script, storyboard and perform short-form videos of gardening tips for younger students.

They must find the vocabulary they need to talk about their garden, words for advice, concepts, plans, decisions, proposals, debates, instructions, stories, recipes and reports.

The digital is naturalised in their literacy practices, whether watching a DirtGirlWorld clip about composting, or updating the garden blog on the school website.

Students learn how to form accurate and effective sentences and paragraphs for real media and for real audiences, for parents and carers, for younger students, for visitors to the school and for the poet in residence, as well as for teachers.

They read First Nations literature about local Country. They read adventures set in gardens and compare other settings to their own.

Learning is pleasure, in the endorphins from being under trees and handling earth, from the lively scent of lavender and rosemary, and from publishing real work, with the sense of achievement this brings.

The school garden provides shared cultural capital for all.

Neither of these schools is real. All schools contain elements of both. But those who claim the digital, the creative and the authentic displace “the basics”, and who insist on a sterile, repetitive, rote and finite curriculum predicated on direct instruction, drills and the reproduction of formulas are mounting a thin argument.

The basics can be taught in ways limited only by the imagination.