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.”

Note 1

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.

Note 2

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.”



  1. It’s really dispiriting to see the way Cove is trying to impose a fact and knowledge based curriculum on young people from pre-school upwards. A totally retrograde step, taking education back years to when I went through it all – with bad grace, I have to say. Examinations were about committing stuff, i.e. so called facts that other people had decided were important, to memorise and regurgitating them on a particular day. As time went on one learnt how to embed these so called facts within a kind of pseudo-intellectual framework, often termed an essay style answer, to achieve ‘high marks”!

    I wonder, how many like me, realised what a complete ‘con” all this was – that what masqueraded as so called facts could be challenged, analysed in a variety of contexts, and modified and or rejected in the light of new material. Observing my three small grandchildren, I realise that this problem based approach mirrors the learning processes that they are putting into play, quite spontaneously during their early development. The role of the adult then becomes a facilitator of learning.

    I worry that what awaits these small children in school is a complete perversion of what I and many others would regard as an educative process

    Now we know how Cove is supposedly justifying his approach from across the pond – the Hirsch based curriculum !!!! So what is the evidence-base for this approach and how does it evaluate in a modern world where change and flexibility are the order of the day…….?

  2. Dr Penny Wolff, like many others seems to miss the point of these proposals. Firstly, like many others of her generation, the old system, now designated a ‘con’ served her very well in terms of providing her with a first-class education. I too went through this same process some 50 years ago and find it increasingly unsettling that people somehow believe that I had an inferior education. Yes, times have changed and we live in a different world but there remains a need to balance the approaches used in education. Having taught for 30 years in secondary schools, I gradually witnessed the demise of subjects and subject knowledge at the expense of ‘personal, learning and thinking skills’. Children now work in a vacuum developing thinking skills in a fact-free environment oblivious of even the most basic facts that should provide the context and framework for their learning. I

    In my own subject, Geography, children have heard of China but have little idea where it is or how it relates to the rest of the world. Children debate the merits or otherwise of ‘Fairtrade’ but have no idea of the meaning of words such as ‘agriculture’, ‘subsistence’ and ‘commercial’.

    I am very wary of Michael Gove and the crazy pace of his changes but there are many modern, 21st century ways of ensuring that children take on board this ‘core knowledge’. In the hands of our best teachers (given the freedom to teach) – we do not have to go back 50 years…..we need to get some balance into this debate.

  3. Surely the critical word is balance. Putting aside for a moment, the over generalisations above e.g claiming that ‘children (all, most or just a few.? ….even a rough percentage would qualify the comment…) have heard of China but have little idea where it is’ etc etc., if David R were to read my latest reply to the Massachusetts blog he would realise that extensive debate and balance are the very things I am advocating.

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