Monday, July 7, 2014

The Schools We Need And Why We Don’t Have Them by E.D Hirsch

I really enjoyed reading The Schools We Need And Why We Don’t Have Them by E.D Hirsch. This book follows his very successful book, Cultural Literacy, his creation of the Core Knowledge Foundation, and his Core Knowledge series of books for parents. Yet being written well before Common Core and other “standards-based” educational reforms, I’m not exactly sure how much of what he suggests is being or has been implemented. 

He begins by stating the obvious. American schools are, by and large, failing. Because this is an acknowledged fact, reforms have been popping up for the last century. However, Hirsch believes, “Most current ‘reforms’ are repetitions or rephrasings of long-failed Romantic anti-knowledge proposals that emanated from Teachers College, Columbia University, in the teens, twenties, and thirties of [the 20th] century.” Despite the “reform mantra,” there has been no reform. Yet we should acknowledge that the enemy to true reform is not certain people, but certain, ubiquitous ideas.

A republican-democracy like ours requires a literate citizenry. Thomas Jefferson believed the purpose of education was “to diffuse knowledge more generally through the mass of the people.” It’s this idea of diffusing knowledge that has been lost. But not just any knowledge will do. “...only that knowledge which constitutes the shared intellectual currency of the society” is useful to enable children to communicate and learn effectively. 

Unfortunately, our educational establishment has shifted from providing knowledge to providing tools for learning. This shift “has resulted in social consequences of tragic proportions.” Knowledge builds on knowledge. True learning tucks new knowledge into the schema already in place in order to make sense of a new concept. Teaching children to “think” without giving a foundation of ideas to think about and incorporate new thoughts into is a fool’s errand. By championing education as a means to develop tools rather than knowledge, we have done something incredibly hard - we have thwarted the natural curiosity and eagerness to learn that is inborn in children. We have bored them to tears.

The obviously controversial nature of choosing which knowledge to include in the curriculum has made it easier to leave the details to individual schools and districts. For example, the educational establishment embraces the teaching of the ability to read maps, and leaves the knowledge of certain locations up to the individual schools/districts. This is why a third grade student will learn about his hometown, but know nothing about the capital of the United States or the Rocky Mountains.

Unfortunately, although a particular district may be very good at including all the essential knowledge they deem necessary as the child progresses from K to 12th grade, this system fails to account for the migration of families throughout the United States. We are a highly migratory people. Perhaps if we stayed put, we might see better educational outcomes, but we don’t. We move. Therefore a child has a high probability of experiencing “gaps” in his knowledge as a result of changing schools. Using a standard of core knowledge has proven to educate children to much higher level than what we are currently experiencing in the United States.

Hirsch point to studies that show, compared to the world, not only are we doing a bad job overall of educating our children, but we are the least fair. We have the most disparity between the results of good schools and the bad. He points to the high mobility inherent in the area where “bad” schools tend to be located. He states, “Throughout the world, just one way has been devised to meet the double challenge of educational excellence and fairness: to teach definite skills and a solid core of content appropriate in an effective manner in each year of preschool and grade-school education.” 

Yet this basic, common sense idea is under attack by entrenched interests. A classical “grammar” education is constantly derided as “mere facts” or “rote learning.” In the age of technological explosions, we are told the facts are always changing, so since we can’t keep up, let’s focus on the tools. However, why would we be teaching “facts” that have not stood the test of time to children? Hirsch knocks down this argument by asking us to start with the things that are solid. Columbus really did sail in 1492. That fact is not a modern construct. Yet the educational monopoly continues to make anti-knowledge excuses. 

Hirsch deconstructs the methodology of the educational monopoly and stresses what the actual results are:
  1. To stress critical thinking while de-emphasizing knowledge reduces a student’s capacity to think critically.
  2. Giving a child constant praise to bolster self-esteem regardless of academic achievement breeds complacency or skepticism, or both, and, ultimately, a decline in self-esteem.
  3. For a teacher to pay significant attention to each individual child in a class of twenty to forty students means individual neglect for most children most of the time.
  4. Schoolwork that has been called ‘developmentally inappropriate’ has proved to be highly appropriate to millions of students the world over, while the infantile pablum now fed to American children is developmentally inappropriate (in a downward direction) and often bores them. 

Yet the progressive monopoly on education marches on. For to question their basic assumptions is to question their very identity. They have imbibed deeply at the well of Romanticism that teaches humans are basically good and therefore nature should be allowed to take its course, and that children are so uniquely special and trustworthy that their impulses should be allowed to develop and govern the growth of the child. These are the assumption that form the foundation of our failed educational experiment. 

Unfortunately, the truth has a irritating habit of popping up. And the truth is, humans are not basically good and children must be formed and guided, or left to their own devices, will become little hellions. The goal of education should not be to defeat human nature, but rather to guide humans toward humane and worthy ends - toward a good civilization. Hirsch points out the “too neat” parallel between class and educational results. Are we to believe that poor children just “naturally” can’t learn as well as rich kids. Really? Is that a stance we are prepared to take? Something is wrong here. And our misguided notions are hurting the ones who can little afford it.

Hirsch answers the question, “How did we get here?” when he discusses the history of teacher’s schools. When Teacher’s College of Columbia University became part of the larger academic institution, they wanted to cloak themselves in rigorous academic “bona-fides.” Started initially as a place to train teachers in the basic skills they would need to impart knowledge to their pupils, they tried to transform themselves into places worthy of academic respect. Unfortunately, they found the disciplines they might incorporate already the provinces of other academics. They had to find a way to differentiate themselves from the History Department or the English Department.  

Consequently, they moved away from teaching pedagogy in two-years to teaching educational theory and more esoteric Romantic and Progressive ideology stretched to a four-year degree, plus additional time for credentialing. This model became the standard and the graduates went on to reproduce this process all over the country. Today, educational schools are still looked down on by true academics, leading to more pseudo research and theories to bolster their reputation, leading to more hoops teachers must jump through and nonsense they must absorb, leading to more children who don’t learn. “Not only do our teacher-training schools decline to put a premium on nuts-and-bolts classroom effectiveness, but they promote ideas that actually run counter to consensus research into teacher effectiveness.” 

This desire for intellectual respect has led to the major themes we see in all “reforms” since the early 20th century: “the identification of correct pedagogy with liberal, democratic American ideals; the dubious claim that it was basing itself upon the most advanced scientific research; the insistence upon the individuality of the child and the autonomy of the teacher; the disparagement of mere subject matter and of other nations’ educational methods; the admonition to teach children rather than subjects; the claim that knowledge is changing so fact that no specific subject matter should be required in the curriculum; the attack on rote learning; the attack on tests and even report cards; the claim that following the project method would develop critical-thinking skills.”

Of the educational monopoly, Hirsch bluntly states, “There is no possibility of adequate improvements in the quality of schooling so long as these influential experts continue to hold both their current ideas and their influential positions as trainers of teachers and administrators.” Therefore, since we cannot dismiss the whole mass of people, we must change ideas. 

Hirsch has a chapter titled, “Reality’s Revenge.” In it, he looks at what research is ACTUALLY telling us rather than the pablum preached by educational “experts.” It turns out that just teaching students to think fails to teach them how to think. It turns out that learning things by rote frees the brain to absorb new things. It turns out “that people who are able to think independently about unfamiliar problems and who are broad-gauged problem solvers, critical thinkers, and lifelong learners are, without exception, well-informed people.” It turns out that the much maligned “drill and kill” methods are essential to “complex and creative intellectual performance[s].”

It will be interesting to see how the current Common Core works now that it is being unveiled across the country. If if works as Hirsch advocates, common knowledge broadly dispersed, it may in fact be the first “good” reform in a hundred years. If, however, it becomes a victim of the establishment and simply another Romantically informed version of “reform,” it will go on the trash heap with “New Math” and “Whole Language.” 

We’ll see. Reality is a b-word. 

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