Saturday, March 25, 2017

Why Knowledge Matters by E.D. Hirsch

I love E.D. Hirsch, and I think I have read just about every book he has written. I truly believe he is onto something with his focus on content over skill acquisition in education. This, his latest book, Why Knowledge Matters, continues to make that case, especially in light of the Common Core. 

After stating, "I am still chiefly motivated by the social injustice of our domestic theories and their unwitting destruction of the American dream," he begins by discussing "The Tyranny of Three Ideas." (p. 1) He states the three misguided ideas as:
1. "Early education should be appropriate to the child's age and nature...
2. Early education should be individualized as far as possible -- to follow the learning styles and interests of each developing student.
3. The unifying aim of education is to develop critical thinking and other general skills." (p. 7)

He believes we should replace these ideas with:
1. "Early education should be chiefly communal -- focused on gaining proficiency in the language and the conventions of the public sphere.
2. Every child in each locality should study basically the  same early curriculum
3. The unifying aim of early schooling is autonomy and equality of opportunity..." (p. 7) 

He summarizes thusly, "I will argue, with support from developmental psychology, that equating early education with the metaphor of individual 'development' is misleading; that so-called 'unnatural' social impositions are the most natural things in the world; that school systems with so-called 'lockstep' curricula in the early grades (Finland, Japan) have very child-happy, effective schools that score near the top in international studies. Indeed, international studies have shown that a differentiated curriculum is harmful to achievement and equity. To make the emphases and content of the child's early schooling largely dependent upon the child's uniqueness is an idea unsupported by developmental psychology. The evidence for individual learning styles is weak to nonexistent." (p.11) Basically, we need a strong, content-based system of standards, taught to each student. This is straight up heresy in the educational world. 

In chapter one, he moves onto the invalidity of testing of students, especially in the language arts. In fact, he believes the tests actually cause lower test scores because they emphasize the wrong things. Since language art standards, even Common Core standards, unlike math standards, are content-free, the test makers must test the skills demanded instead. Yet research has shown that after learning basic decoding skills, generalized how-to skills don't exist and therefore cannot be tested. It is the students with the most content knowledge that do best on these "reading comprehension" tests. Relevant vocabulary and knowledge, not skills, determine the score. Of course the real danger is that schools will spend time trying to teach these skills, rather than the more productive content. "Those wasted hours ought to be spent on far more interesting and rewarding subject matters that will build up knowledge and vocabulary, and therefore induce greater reading competence." (p. 32) Yet he admits that this is "an outcome that will require greater courage and scientific insight than has been shown in the recent past." (p.33)

Chapter two deals with "The Scapegoating of Teachers." While acknowledging that our teacher colleges do a horrible job of preparing teachers to actually teach, Hirsch believes that even great teachers will underperform when given a bad curriculum. "In a system with a specific and coherent curriculum, the work of each teacher builds on the work of teachers who came before. The three Cs — cooperation, coherence, and cumulativeness — yield a bigger boost than the most brilliant efforts of teachers working individuality against the odds within a topic-incoherent system." (p. 37) He encourages teachers who want to be effective to "rebel against the skills delusion... [and] insist on coherent and cumulative multiyear content...then cooperate and consult." (p. 41)

Next he moves onto the "fadeout" we see of abilities garnered in a high-quality preschool. This is not universal, but it is certainly a characteristic of American education. In fact, the fadeout and achievement gaps increase as time goes on. He blames the elementary curriculum. Even very effective elementary programs like Direct Instruction and Success For All experience fadeout. He again points to the lack of a coherent knowledge-based curriculum in otherwise stellar programs. Our primary schools are saturated with "Reggio Emilia," the theory of letting children naturally develop. It emphasizes projects and hands-on learning. He looks to the high quality French preschools and the eventual fadeout seen once the students have progressed through the naturalistic primary schools. 

Because of falling test scores and the recognition that education is in trouble, various reforms like No Child Left Behind have forced schools to put all their emphasis on on language and math skills. Other subjects have been largely pushed out. Yet as he has repeatedly shown, language arts skills do not exist. It is content knowledge that determines the language arts abilities of a student. Yet teachers feel forced to teach skills because that is what will be tested. 

Hirsch states, "It is widely conceded that the high-stakes testing introduced by No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2002 caused a reduction in the knowledge students have gained in history, civics, music, visual art, literature and science." (p. 61) He bemoans this "dilution of the elementary curriculum" because the impact on low-income communities has been devastating. He believes rich curriculum would solve many, if not all, of the educational ills we face. In fact, he states, There is a growing body of evidence that many practical differences in students' ability to learn the academic content are differences in the topic-relevant knowledge that they already possess." (p. 72) 

One belief of modern education is that we need to develop "Twenty-first Century Skills" in our students. Remarkably these skills, including critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, teamwork and communication, are the same skills that were called "Nineteenth Century Skills" and "Twentieth Century Skills." In short, these are the skills education is always supposed to produce, but we have short-circuited the hard work of imparting knowledge and believe we can skip directly to imparting the skill. Repeatedly, Hirsch states that there is no such thing as a skill apart from content. There is no general "critical thinking" skill. This focus on building skills has led to an incoherent and fragmented curriculum in which topics do not build on and support other topics. 

Critics argue that some topics are "developmentally inappropriate" at certain ages. Hirsch argues that this is patently false. Even Piaget, of the famous developmental stages, recanted at the end of his life and admitted that developmental stages owe far more to knowledge than chronological age. Inappropriateness of a topic comes from the unfamiliarity a child has with the relevant knowledge, not the age of the child. Certainly there are some things a child shouldn't know at a certain age, and wouldn't understand because he does not have an understanding of the other, related knowledge. But that doesn't make the child developmentally unable to process all kinds of information.

Leaving no dogma stone unturned, Hirsch addresses leveled, independent-reading programs. He states, "There's no evidence that the individualization of leveled-reader bins develops deep student interest or makes better readers. On the contrary, it neglects systematic knowledge building -- the key to high reading ability." (p. 73) This idea that students should read books they choose as long as they are at their reading level is sacrosanct in education. But Hirsch argues that there is no good way to level books because the publishers have no idea of the background knowledge a child has in the subject. Plus, letting a child choose his own book is not a systematic way to gain that background knowledge. It all becomes a hodgepodge. But it is favored by those preferring an individualized, child-centered approach, which Hirsch has demonstrated time and again, doesn't work. Consider the example of a doctor. He can read very high level dissertations on medicine, but he is helpless as a reader when confronted with an equally high level paper on engineering. It's content knowledge that makes him proficient as a reader. The only way to become a competent reader is a well-rounded education. 

But what about the argument that skills are more valuable than content knowledge because someone could always just "look it up." Well it turns out that it is not that easy. Just looking something up can be very disorienting without having some idea of what you are looking for. It is very easy to find information that an expert would recognize as misleading, wrong, or not credible. "Google is not an equal-opportunity fact finder; it rewards those already in the know." (p. 83) He calls this the Matthew Effect. Basically to those who have more will be given. To those with little, it will be taken away. 

What Hirsch is most concerned with are the achievement gaps we see in education that particularly hit the disadvantaged students. While no system can completely overcome the disadvantages a student might be born into, a good education can certainly help close that gap. The best part is, a good school can actually benefit the poorer student more than the great ones, in effect, reversing the Matthew Effect. Especially if we start with the youngest students when the gap is the smallest, low-income students can catch up and keep up if they get a systematic well-rounded education year after year. 

Next Hirsch weighs in with his thoughts on the Common Core. Even though he has advocated a "small-c" common core for decades, he is somewhat dismayed with what is being done now. He laments the fact that, although it does recommend a systematic, rich curriculum, that part is not emphasized. And certainly those implementing it are not emphasizing that. He cites their fear of recommending a specific core of knowledge required in K-12. Any recommendations are certain to followed up with howls of protest for what was not included as well as what was. But this thinking has left a lacuna in the knowledge held by students as they graduate from high school. While he believes there IS a cannon of knowledge that all American students should be well-versed in, he believes the most important thing is a systematic study of content with each topic building on the next. Multi-culturalists have weighed in demanding the curriculum be all-encompassing, highlighting the achievements of the neglected and disenfranchised. Ironically, this hurts the children they are purporting to help by depriving them of the standard body of knowledge necessary to succeed in the larger society. But until tests stop testing "skills," and start testing for specific content, he doesn't foresee a switch happening.

In addition, he attacks the idea of "close reading." He has seen elementary students try to "close read" and it results in nothing more than completely highlighted texts and random words pulled out. Once again, he returns to his idea of content knowledge stating that only those already fluent in the content can close read. It is another manifestation of the Matthew Effect. Unfortunately, most students are not well-versed and therefore are hurt in their efforts to "close read" because they end up missing the main points being made. 

As an example of all he is saying, he uses the school system in France. They are a perfect laboratory experiment for his views. Up until 1989, they had the kind of educational system he advocates for. Then they abruptly changed to a model based on the progressive U.S. schools. After more than 20 years, the data is in. It is clear that the experiment has failed. And yet, like the U.S. they are impervious to the ramifications. Like the United States, they have doubled down on progressive, child-centered pedagogy. Sweden did the same thing with the same results. However in Sweden, it was the right, not the left, pushing for the changes. He does not believe that the educational theories so widely espoused today are necessarily conservative or liberal, but simply pervasive. 

Finally, he ends with a discussion of what he is seeing the schools that have implemented his version of a common core, called Core Knowledge. He has seen reading gaps all but disappear rather than increase. He has seen the development of creativity by moving away from individualistic education and towards a communal-based education. Once children have a base of knowledge, they can soar. To the critics, he states that the Core Knowledge series follows the six key features endemic to all successful elementary curriculum:
1. Field-tested - "The need for field testing is obvious."
2. Topic-specific - ""...topic specificity is probably the most important characteristic to insist upon in the United States, since it makes everyone -- teachers, students, and parents -- aware of the level of expertise that students will have gained at each point, and what will need to be learned in the future."
3. Well rounded - "... breadth of knowledge and vocabulary (including proper nouns!) is critical to high reading skill and other communicative skills. Broad knowledge is also critical for ameliorating class distinctions..." 
4. Coherent - "Topic coherence within a grade level is particularly important in the language arts class, where topic in the United States are currently individualized, fragmentary, and disconnected." 
5. Cumulative - "Designing a multiyear cumulative sequence of topics is important technically to make sure that students are ready for each subject over the sequence of grade levels."
6. Selective - "...the topics of the curriculum should convey the most enabling knowledge withing the national context. " (p. 179-180)
Critics, however, continue to call it untested and ignore the studies that show it being successful. Hirsch acknowledges that all of this "contradicts the child-centered, skill-centric doctrines that are still an intellectual monopoly in our education world." (p. 182) But until the wider public understands that thinking skills like "critical thinking" and "problem-solving" are not in fact productive aims because there is no such thing as a general skill, it will be hard to make the necessary changes. In addition, there is push-back from conservatives who fear a "national curriculum" will inhibit our long-standing tradition of local control. The problem with this view, however, is that for most of American history we did have a type of national curriculum that was common to all or most schools. It is the Romantics that pushed for more local control over content in order to individualize education to the child. Conservatives should be at the forefront of pushing for a national common core of knowledge to be taught in the elementary schools in order to created citizens with a common heritage and store of knowledge. However, I understand the justified fear that what constitutes the common core can be manipulated by groups with an agenda. Yet what we are seeing now is clearly not working.

Teachers, parents, and students balk at Hirsch's ideas. It sounds like a lot of work on everyone's part. And yet that is exactly the prescription we need. "There are no significant shortcuts to intellectual competence." (p. 190) As Dr. Arnn of Hillsdale is fond of saying, "Strap your boots on. It's time to get to work."

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