Key influencer-against formalism and naturalism

In favour of  the acquisition of core knowledge


The coalition Government is intent on reforming the curriculum so that, at the heart of our system, is a core curriculum, shaped along traditional lines.

Nick Gibb has made no secret of his admiration for the work of the American academic ED Hirsch which have clearly helped inform his views. So what does Hirsch believe in?  He believes that the basic goal of education in a human community is ‘acculturation’ – in other words the transmission to children of the specific information shared by the adults of the group or community. So knowing key objective facts and  possessing a sound general knowledge  are at the heart  of a good education.

Hirsch has 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 it 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 said  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.
Hirsch argues that the beliefs of formalism and naturalism are deeply flawed. He explains formalism as “the belief that the particular content which is learned in school (the content which he calls intellectual capital) is far less important than acquiring the formal tools which will enable a person to learn future content.” When referring to naturalism, Hirsch states that he means “the belief that education is a natural process with its own inherent forms and rhythms, which may vary with each child, and is most effective when it is connected with natural, real-life goals and settings”

Hirsch believes in the anthropological notion that “all human communities are founded upon specific shared information, and furthermore, he says the modern world requires a literate culture. Effective communication among a human group, in his opinion, requires the accumulation of shared symbols and the information that those symbols represent Children in American schools must master the English language. A failure to do so in the use of speech and writing drastically limits one’s potential for opportunity, freedom and income.  According to Hirsch, natural talent will only get a person so far in life. In order to succeed, one must accept the idea of hard work and be fully committed to the task at hand.  Hirsch emphasizes that all learning requires effort. The effort of attention is needed as well as repetition. He argues that “no matter how much innate math ability a child has, he or she will not learn the multiplication table effectively by osmosis” Thus, drill and practice are necessary for learning. Furthermore, unless efforts are “directed and monitored, a primary responsibility of the teacher, secure learning will not occur”

Does Hirsch have any detractors?

You bet. His views are ridiculed by quite a number of academics, not least because they are fairly easy to caricature and when placed out of their full context, they can look reactionary. Some see him as an Orwellian Minister of Truth, drilling his own distinctive view of what it is to be a good American into the gullible minds of youth.  His worst sin though, as far as   progressive educators are concerned, is to attack the progressive child centred thinking of Dewey which Hirsch blames for leaving American teenage test scores way behind those most of the developed world.  But in a sense Hirsch has won the battle with Dewey in that most of the highest performing public schools in the USA are using Hirsch’s curriculum, or something pretty similar. Dewey’s ideas are much more thinly spread throughout the system.