Why Knowledge Matters: Rescuing Our Children from Failed Educational Theories Paperback – 30 Sept. 2016
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"Living in an era when news is faked, alternative facts guide national policy, assertions are accepted on the basis of volume or repetition rather than evidence, reasoned debate is ridiculed, and scientific findings are routinely dismissed, it is difficult not to be drawn to a title such as Why Knowledge Matters." --Bertram C. Bruce, Educational Theory
"Hirsch's call for curricular coherency through deep content knowledge is a welcome proposal in an era of narrowed curriculum and skills-based high-stakes testing." --Pamela Bolotin Joseph, Educational Review
"Hirsch's call for 'a better-educated citizenry' should be heeded by educators and administrators alike." --Publishers Weekly
From the Inside Flap
--Steven Pinker, Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, author of The Language Instinct and The Sense of Style "Hirsch has done it again. He has produced the most clear and well-grounded argument for why a knowledge-centric education is critical for enhancing educational equity. He pulls no punches. Why Knowledge Matters provides thoughtful solutions to important education issues."
--Susan B. Neuman, professor and chair, Teaching and Learning Department, Steinhardt School, New York University "If you are frustrated and angry about the over-testing of students, the narrowing of the curriculum, the scapegoating of teachers, and the persistence of the achievement gap, you must read this brilliant book. Hirsch persuasively explains how all these phenomena are related, and points the way forward to a better education for all."
--Daniel T. Willingham, professor, University of Virginia E. D. Hirsch, Jr. is the founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation.
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Obviously heavy references to US education systems but nonetheless has resonance in how the quality of education in UK schools will now be determined.
Hirsch also argues for the transmission of cultural knowledge specific to the nations in which the education is taking place. He therefore recommends a curricular programme designed to introduce children to what 'every American (or English) child needs to know'. He is an advocate of the idea of a core curriculum common to all national schools and, by implication in England, a national curriculum that doesn't mince words about the cultural knowledge that children in English schools need to acquire through their schooling. He does not only recommend this kind of education. He also shows what goes badly wrong when knowledge is jettisoned, illustrating this with powerful case studies from France and the USA.
Hirsch has sometimes been treated like a 'pariah' (his own words) because of these views, but he is finally coming into his own, both in England, where his influence is apparent in the recently revised national curriculum, and in the USA via the Common Core State Standards, which President Trump unfortunately appears neither to understand nor to like.
This is a book that needs to be read by anyone, in any Western country, charged with educational decision-making.
Top international reviews
So what qualifications do I have to say that? I have master’s degrees in Educational Administration and in a scientific field. Between my credentials and my education degree, I have the equivalent of three years of full time postgraduate study in education. And if it matters, I’ve been teaching for 18 years.
In Why Knowledge Matters, E.D. Hirsch completely breaks with the prevailing orthodoxy on the subject of learning. The current orthodoxy states that the acquisition of knowledge is virtually unimportant in a child’s education. What’s important is that a child learns “critical thinking” or “problem solving” or “reading comprehension skills.” So instead of teaching my students the scientific knowledge I’ve acquired over years of study, research and teaching...I’m supposed to teach them an amorphous and impossible to measure set of skills. Actually, I’m not even supposed to teach. I’m supposed to facilitate learning by teaching them skills that are “universal” and “not specific” to science. Seriously…I’m not supposed to teach.
But here’s what Professor Hirsh makes absolutely clear. There is no such thing as “reading comprehension skills” or “critical thinking skills” or non-domain specific “problem solving skills." If I gave a passage from an advanced mechanical engineering textbook to an average liberal arts major and told them to read and comprehend it, they would fail. Why? Because they lack the background knowledge needed to make sense of the material in the engineering text. But if I first taught them the needed vocabulary and scientific principles, they then could make sense of it. Because American schools don’t focus on knowledge, we aren’t giving our students the tools they need to comprehend much of what they read. Many are just like that liberal arts student trying to make sense of an engineering text.
The same goes for problem solving. Take fixing-a-broken-transmission as an example of a problem that needs to be solved. You can drill a student in “problem solving” skills until the next ice age, but it won’t add one bit of information on how transmissions work to their brain. And without that critical knowledge, a transmission is nothing more than a piece of metal that magically makes the car’s wheels move. You cannot solve a problem that you don’t understand, and you can’t understand it without knowledge. And that knowledge needs to be taught. But under the dominant orthodoxy of education, knowledge is relegated to being “trivia” or “factoids.” Nothing worth filling a child’s head with.
Worst of all, our current obsession with an amorphous and impossible to measure set of skills is making education boring. Explain to a child how a volcano works and you see his or her eyes light up. I’ve had parents tell me that their child couldn’t wait to tell them how hurricanes form or why earthquakes happen after learning it in my class. I would hazard that there’s never been a student in the world who was exited to go home and tell his parents how to annotate and summarize an article.
Why Knowledge Matters refines and updates the arguments of some of Hirsch's earlier work--with references to cognitive science, analyses of the Common Core State Standards and other recent developments, and reflections on the curricular "revolution" in France. Hirsch makes his points with wisdom and wit, avoiding politicization and dogma while stressing the communal purposes of education. (It is this commonality, he notes, that allows students to form their own opinions and tastes through interchange with each other.) The book abounds with helpful references--studies, histories, first-hand accounts, literary works, and much more.
It has to be said again and again, and Hirsch says it here: privileged children gain much of their broad cultural knowledge outside of school; poor children depend largely on school for such knowledge. So school cannot be a free-for-all, where some people learn things and others do not. The instruction has to be deliberate and substantial. (I would add that such instruction can benefit privileged/advanced students as well; they have opportunities to structure their learning, view topics from new perspectives, and challenge themselves to new levels.)
If you are a member of the "choir"--that is, if you already support the idea of strong curriculum, then the book can take your thinking further. I especially enjoyed the parts with which I slightly disagreed; they challenged me to refine my views. No going to sleep at my post here.
I recommend this book for teachers, principals, superintendents, parents, students, journalists, and anyone else interested in education as a public good.
A simple look at standardized state-level elementary Language Arts tests proves the point: How can we expect to make sense of what our youngsters really learn at school when they have to respond to test questions such as "Which paragraph in the passage above best answers the following question..." or "Which of the following might be the best subtitle for paragraph #3?" Perhaps the worst culprit of all (as acknowledged by Hirsch) encountered on tests is "Which of the following best represents the main idea of the passage" when even teachers and instructional coaches gather to debrief after the test and can't agree on which is the best answer. Really? ...and then we wonder why our children do so poorly on tests, all the while having completely purged the curriculum of any grammar instruction,etc.?
Kudos to Mr. Hirsch for not only shedding light on the failure of so many of these upstart educational theories, but also for backing up his own research with the latest proven international findings (e.g., in France and Japan) and for doing it without mean-spirited name calling.
Especially if used in conjunction with his previously published "nuts and bolts" grade-level essential knowledge workbooks, our teachers and parents would be so much better off listening to what Hirsch has to say than to get lost in the fuzzy musings of so many educational theorists out to make a quick buck.
In WHY KNOWLEDGE MATTERS Hirsch has changed his vocabulary somewhat. He characterizes the ‘skill-based’ methods as ‘naturalistic’, ‘developmental’ and ‘individualistic’, in part to link them with the nexus of theoretical notions and jargon associated with Dewey and traceable to the pantheism of Wordsworth and Hegel which so influenced him. Hirsch would substitute ‘community-based’ or ‘communitarian’ methods, echoing the notion that the acculturation of the young by adults, the introducing of the young to the breadth and depth of adult learning in their particular society is a far more ‘natural’ practice than treating the student as if he or she is some creature in a Rousseau-like state of nature who must learn on his or her own, in his or her way, at his or her pace.
Hirsch argues for building common curricula consisting of challenging texts that will be read and discussed by all students (as he long has done) with increased evidence here, principally the passing of the so-called loi Jospin of 1989. Basically, the French (who had a very strong system of education) suddenly decided to adopt American methods. The result (as the French themselves characterized it) was a “tragic debacle”.
The purpose of utilizing content-based reading materials is not just because they are more effective. They are also far more egalitarian; they are the best way to achieve equity in schools that consist of students who enjoy advantages as well as students who begin with considerable disadvantages. For example: vocabulary (which is expanded by reading substantive texts) is crucial to human economic success. One standard deviation in the size of a student’s vocabulary results in a differential of $10,000 in income (in 2012 dollars). One important study (described in detail—p. 167) examined the impact of discussion and feedback on the student’s resulting vocabulary. After four years of observation it was found that children from professional families heard 45,000,000 words, children from working class families 26,000,000 words, children from welfare families only 13,000,000 words. Content-based learning is best positioned to remedy these disparities. The bottom line is that there is really no such thing as a reading skill divorced from content. All reading ‘skills’ are based on domain-specific knowledge. A low-IQ student who knows a great deal about a given subject (stars, dinosaurs, football, whatever) is a better reader of texts in those areas than a high IQ student who lacks the domain-specific knowledge. Hence the goals of both reading achievement and reading equity are best served by a content-rich curriculum that spans a wide variety of human learning and human experience. (The latter points are reinforced at length by references to a wide body of contemporary research.)
Hirsch has utilized the resources from his bestselling 1987 book to establish a foundation that works with schools across the country (some 1200 now) to build content-rich curricula. These schools have achieved great success in the face of opposition from the education establishment. He has demonstrated the importance to a democracy of common cultural literacy, both for the advancement of all citizens and for their ability to communicate with each other. One review of this new book labels him a national hero. That is not an understatement.
Highly recommended (though the reader should also check out Hirsch’s earlier book, CULTURAL LITERACY).