Why Knowledge Matters by E.D. Hirsch Jr.

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ED Hirsch Jr.’s new book ‘Why Knowledge Matters’ is a good read. It covers some old ground, focuses on areas in which his mind has changed and clarifies others in the light of experience and research. I am pleased to see, in his acknowledgements, that we share some similar philosophical interests, especially Husserl, Hegel and Gramsci. Hirsch is no lightweight and, at his great age, he still cares very much about the education of the young.

This book matters. In it he argues for the importance of curriculum and that this curriculum should be grounded in knowledge that should be imparted systematically and, in answer to the chaos mongers oft repeated question ‘ah, but whose knowledge?’ he replies it should be ‘the knowledge that is commonly possessed by successful citizens…’ Success is defined as being: “a person with autonomy, who commands respect…”

The book is much concerned about the French revolution, not the one that so exercised Edmund Burke but the more recent one in which the French have moved from a curriculum of which Hirsch greatly approved to one that is more akin to the American one, which he abhors. From Condorcet in 1790 and his ‘common education for children,’ through to Giscard d’Estaing in 1977 who trumpeted: “The defining and acquiring of the very same knowledge by all French children, who from now will all go to the same primary school, and the same middle school, will be an essential element in the unity of French society, and in the reduction of inequalities of opportunity;” the French have had a national belief in uniformity – egalité. It was the conflict between this and another part of the French raison d’être, ‘liberté’ that was, maybe, behind the 1989 change to this approach. The ‘Loi Jospin’ set up local curriculums in which more attention was to be paid to the individuality of the pupil. Hirsch emphasises the progressive buzz words, ‘critical thinking’ and ‘learning to learn’, that began to infect these ‘projets’.

Hirsch points out that, buildings, budgets and teacher quality remained pretty constant in France and the excellent early years education stayed the same. What changed significantly was the curriculum and the pedagogy of the elementary or primary school. French education ministry data reports: “An astonishingly steep decline in achievement in each demographic group… Each group was academically harmed by the new system…” And that harm hit the poorest the hardest. This is what motivates Hirsch, the damage being done to social justice. Hirsch is a creature of the left. In France, Hirsch notes, this decline in education standards is called the ‘crisis of the school.’

To allay this crisis in France, in the USA and, indeed in other countries including the UK Hirsch recommends the following three points:

“Early education should be chiefly communal – focused on gaining proficiency in the language and the conventions the public sphere.

Every child in each locality should study basically the same early curriculum.

The unifying aim of early schooling is autonomy and equality of opportunity: to impart to every child the enabling knowledge that is possessed by the most successful adults in the wider society.”

Hirsch sees the dispute as being between the ‘naturalists’ and the ‘communalists’, the naturalists extol the virtues of following the child’s natural development, (though Hirsch points out this is a highly disputed area) this is a child centred approach, the communalists are against individualisation, his key point is this:

‘Elementary school is a time for building socialisation as the only means through which individuality can ultimately express itself.’

The communalist teaches shared language, codes of behaviour, to give children shared memberships of the ‘tribe’. He dismisses ideas that this becomes a ‘factory’ type schooling pointing out the high stakes soulless testing factories are a feature of schools where the lack of basic knowledge of the pupils has led to extreme measures being adopted to over compensate for badly thought through curriculum and pedagogy.

It is this communal principal that is the heart of his book, in which children should have a ‘shared, enabling knowledge, and language.’ the ‘taken-for-granted knowledge’ of the ‘standard language’. He calls this ‘communal knowledge’, this is a change from what he used to refer to as ‘cultural literacy’.

In a talk I attended last year Hirsch emphasised that,”self actualisation” is an important purpose for schooling but that this should be more of a feature of secondary schooling rather than primary.

Hirsch complains that schools often boast in their mission statements that they will provide a personalised education for children.It is this fragmentation of the curriculum that has led, Hirsch suggests, to the idea of the need for skills education, usually in the form of: “critical thinking, creative thinking, problem-solving, and co-operative thinking.” It is the hope of individualism, argues Hirsch, that these skills will render the lack of coherent curricula unimportant as the skills will be such that the free individualised human being will be able to discover curricula for themselves as they will have the ability to critically think for themselves about any content. Hirsch can see the logic of this argument, but it is because no-one is forthright enough to challenge the individualism at the heart of American society that means that a logical, sequential curriculum is not going to occur and children have to be given the tools to cope with this lack of coherence. The problem is, the tools can’t cope. This is where the domain specificity of skills comes in. One can try to critically think one’s way around a multiplicity of fields, but the less you know about an area the more difficult it is to think critically about it. He suggests the ‘skills’ pioneers are right to seek an overarching approach to education, for what is the desire for creativity, critical thinking and collaboration for all but a unifying approach to curriculum design and pedagogy? The problem is this unifying approach doesn’t work. The only unifying approach that can hope to succeed is one that is based on a coherent curriculum.

With this argument Hirsch sets up his wonderful book.

I agree with so much here but, if I may, I wish to lend a cautionary note. The French top-down approach to their language, to their society is very different to the approach of the English speaking world. We baulk at French policing of the Burkha and, even the Burkini on beaches. Rather than having egalité and liberté in a slogan around our necks we, in the UK, understand the tension between these laudable aims and as ever try to muddle through. I would argue that a national curriculum is a most ‘unBritish’ affair, its introduction into this country solved some problems and created others. By making the curriculum the plaything of politicians we have the more child centred curriculums ‘for Excellence’ in Scotland,  and the new curriculum in Wales, and the short lived 2007 national curriculum in England. By making a curriculum national doesn’t mean we get a coherent knowledge based curriculum, it can mean the opposite. The problem with it being national is then all children in a Nation have to suffer an incoherent curriculum with the only escape from it being open to those who are wealthy enough to be able to opt out and put their child into the independent sector.

A national, top down, approach is ‘Fragile’,  it is likely to break due to the inevitable outside pressures on it. By making it a political tool, politicians keep making headline additions to it, more drugs ed, sex ed, porn-ed, British values, you name it in the Daily Mail one day it’s in the curriculum the next. This inevitable tinkering with the curriculum leads to it being less coherent by the year. On top of that if attainment measures show a marked decline a crisis is announced, wholesale changes are made, the system cracks under pressure and because no-one has any expertise in doing things in different ways, as everyone has been teaching in similar ways because of the central diktat, this shock is more because it requires wholesale changes to methods. By having people already working on different ways of delivering a curriculum we keep generating expertise. As there is probably ‘not’ just one way to deliver a ‘coherent curriculum’ it is important to keep our options open. It is the importance of the idea of coherence that should permeate the system not a command from on high telling teachers what that coherence is.

This brings me to my next point. If teachers are told what the curriculum contains they are left to concern themselves with pedagogy. How to teach things starts to exercise our minds and we end up looking to ‘engage’ pupils, we try to be ‘creative’ and look for a myriad of tricks; because we do not have an underlying stake in the curriculum itself we do not fully understand its logic or, worse, we disagree with it and try to undermine it in some way. Hirsch is right to emphasise the communal aspect and this should be in teaching also. A coherent curriculum needs to be designed by those who are to teach it, not individually but together, review it regularly together, and see pedagogy as inextricably linked to the curriculum. For me, the trivium approach, is an extremely useful way of seeing this connectivity and is the way forward to help teachers see that the way and the what over a whole curriculum from ages 3-19 has an internal logic which they understand completely as they have been involved in the creation of it. The trivium approach also has the added advantage of bringing arguments about what and why to teach certain texts and events into the curriculum itself; a trivium approach recognises that these things can be highly contested and that this ‘dialectic’ can be an invigorating part of teaching and learning. It is not satisfactory to merely state that one should teach: “the knowledge that is commonly possessed by successful citizens.” This means that Latin, for one, would never be in any curriculum, nor the finer aspects of architecture, music or making a bookshelf. And as for defining a ‘successful’ citizen… Donald Trump? Wayne Rooney? We need teachers to think about the qualities of their subject rather than some abstract notion of what constitutes a successful citizen and trying to prove what they ‘know’.

That this curriculum creation can be done in one school or, even in a Multi-Academy Trust brings me to my last point, if a parent and/or child doesn’t like the curriculum offer of a particular school they should have the choice to go to another. We need this choice. If one school offers Latin throughout and the IB at 16 I might prefer it to one that only has French and A levels. I might prefer a school that recognises the importance of the Arts to one that is all STEM obsessed and in which business studies takes centre stage rather than music. In a Primary I might prefer a school that teaches subjects from 7 yrs old to one that insists on project-based learning. If all these choices are dictated by central government and I have no choice but to try to vote them out every five years the education of my child will be sorely affected.

A National Curriculum is great if you agree with it and it suits your child.

In summation: I say yes to a communal, knowledge based curriculum, just not one imposed from above. Rather one that is written communally as well as offering a rejoinder to excessive individualisation.

NB: This commentary is based on the prologue, I will write further about this excellent book in the coming days and maybe adjust my thoughts as I read further.

 

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4 thoughts on “Why Knowledge Matters by E.D. Hirsch Jr.

  1. Claire MacLean

    If done well (and yes. that’s the big if, naturally) project-based learning need not be in opposition to robust disciplinary knowledge. Given that subject divisions are artificial, and to a great extent arbitrary constructs, the project based approach can allow for a broader and more nuanced approach to the communal knowledge you seek. A project on Vikings in primary can. for example, demonstrate how some English spelling patterns have come about, start to explain why word-order in English became so important, examine ideas of settlement and invasion and look at ideas of religion and politics. A strict “History” approach would not necessarily address these interconnections, and to my mind would limit the knowledge gained. But there’s no doubt it is difficult to do – doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing.

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