GOVE, HIRSCH AND THE CURRICULUM
New curriculum will focus on core knowledge-influenced by Hirsch
E.D. Hirsch is an American professor whose radical ideas about what should be taught in schools are set to have a profound effect on English schools. A favoured intellectual of the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, Hirsch advocates a curriculum strongly grounded in facts and knowledge. He also believes that there are certain specific ideas, works of literature and scientific concepts which everyone should know so that they can be active participants in society. This is aimed at counteracting what Gove describes as a prevailing left-wing or ‘progressive’ ideology among teachers.
In a speech to the Social Market Foundation, on 5 February, Gove promised to rid the curriculum of “vapid happy talk” and ensure pupils had a structured “stock of knowledge”.
Hirsch promoted the idea of the importance of cultural literacy—the necessary information that students must have to understand what they read. After arguing, in Cultural Literacy (1988), that young people are not becoming good readers because they lack cultural literacy, Hirsch set out to remedy the problem by “spelling out, grade by grade, in detail, what students must know in a variety of fields if they are to be competent and understanding readers.” In addition to this Core Knowledge curriculum, Hirsch launched a system of Core Knowledge schools to teach it along with a Core Knowledge Foundation to support them. Indeed his Core Knowledge curriculum, created in 1986, is now used in more than 1,000 schools and preschools in 47 States. So teaching a core knowledge is essential. And this must detail specific information for students to learn. It is a “lasting body of knowledge, which includes such topics as the basic principles of constitutional government, mathematics and language skills, important events in world history, and acknowledged masterpieces of art, music and literature” Hirsch asserts that “the principal aim of schooling is to promote literacy as an enabling competence”. Crucially general knowledge should be a goal of education because it “makes people competent regardless of race, class or ethnicity while also making people more competent in the tasks of life.” This general knowledge includes knowing a range of objective facts. Hirsch says that highly skilled intellectual competence only comes after one knows a lot of facts.
Knowledge, according to Hirsch, is “intellectual capital” – that is “the knowledge and skill a person possesses at a given moment.” He also says that the more knowledge and skill a person has, the more they can acquire. “Learning builds on learning” he argues. So, the more a person knows, believes Hirsch, the more a person can learn in a multiplier effect. He calls existing knowledge “mental Velcro”, which allows for additional knowledge to become attached to it , and so a memory replete with facts learns better than one without.
In his speech Gove criticised the widespread opposition to the English Baccalaureate, the performance measure introduced in 2010 which gauges secondary schools by the proportion of pupils who get a C or above in six GCSEs – English, maths, two of the sciences, history or geography and a language.
“The reaction from the Labour party, the teaching unions, teacher training institutions and all too many figures ostensibly dedicated to cultural excellence was visceral horror,” Gove said.
In the most scathing and personal section of the speech Gove argued that his Labour shadow, Stephen Twigg, along with the party’s leader, Ed Miliband, and Ed Balls, the children’s minister turned shadow chancellor, wanted to deny disadvantaged pupils the benefits of a liberal education of the sort they enjoyed in studying for degrees in politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford.
Dipping into popular TV culture by referencing the TV costume drama Downton Abbey, Gove said: “The current leadership of the Labour party react to the idea that working-class students might study the subjects they studied with the same horror that the Earl of Grantham showed when a chauffeur wanted to marry his daughter.
“Labour, under their current leadership, want to be the Downton Abbey party when it comes to educational opportunity. They think working-class children should stick to the station in life they were born into – they should be happy to be recognised for being good with their hands and not presume to get above themselves.”
London’s Pimlico Academy is one pioneering school that has introduced a “Hirsch-style” curriculum in its new primary school. Two young women are leading this experiment: Anneliese Briggs and Daisy Christodoulou. Pimlico Academy of course is supported by venture capitalist Lord Nash, recently appointed an education minister to replace Lord Hill.
Ed Hirsch’s thinking, which Gove so admires (as does Nick Gibb the former schools Minister) is seen as antithetical to the progressive, child centred approach to education as articulated by thinkers such as John Dewey (active in early twentieth century). To be fair , concerning Dewey, his views are often caricatured by critics and taken out of context partly, one suspects, because they are not so easily understood and he is a less easily accessible writer than Hirsch. And, of course, he isn’t around to clarify his ideas for us. Dewey wanted a better balance between delivering knowledge and memorisation while fully taking into account the interests and experiences of the student. Dewey became one of the most famous proponents of hands-on learning or ‘experiential’ education. Hirsch has had more influence on US schools. And, significantly, the best performing US state-Massachusetts-is heavily influenced by Hirsch, hence it is frequently referenced by Gove. Hirsch has studied Massachusetts. He found that Massachusetts was one of three states that made the most progress at reducing achievement gaps between 1998 and 2005. Between 2002 and 2009, the scores of African-Americans and Hispanics on both fourth- and eighth-grade reading tests improved more rapidly than those of white students. Low-income students made gains as well. “If you are a disadvantaged parent with a school-age child,” Hirsch said in 2008, “Massachusetts is . . . the state to move to.”