“Hirsch has unfairly been characterised as a right-wing, neo-conservative educationist for advocating views which – I would warrant – are entirely mainstream within US society.”
Nick Gibb, How Hirsch Came to Shape UK Government Policy, Policy Exchange, 2015
John Severs interviewed the educationalist, E D Hirsch for last week’s TES. It is important for a piece like this to have some sort of angle and Severs’s approach was to suggest that Hirsch has been misrepresented in the UK and that Hirsch feels uncomfortable about this. “Has it been a wilful misrepresentation?” Severs asks and singles out Nick Gibb, UK education minister, and Katherine Birbalsingh, head of a new free school in North-West London. Severs also seems surprised to discover that Hirsch has left-leaning political views and presents this as something of a revelation.
It is important to note that Hirsch certainly has been misrepresented by those who strongly disagree with him. Following the publication of “Cultural Literacy” in the 1980s, American commentators went to town, vilifying him as a reactionary figure. More recently, Tait Coles had a pop at Hirsch in The Guardian. This might make him wary of how his ideas are presented and it seems that Severs sensed this. However, the claim in the TES piece is that Hirsch is being misrepresented by UK admirers like Gibb and Birbalsingh. “The academic’s true doctrine differs markedly from that of his followers,” the article claims. This is the part that needs to be detailed and substantiated.
But it isn’t really. Severs’s article is like one of those sneezes that continually fails to reach a climax. “He is… the theorist whose ideas are seized upon by teachers who support the new curriculum and a more “traditional” way of teaching. They’ve all got him right, haven’t they?” Severs asks. Expecting a rebuttal, we then read in the next line that, “Hirsch would never contradict such a view directly – it’s not his style.” Oh. And it goes on like that.
There is the insinuation that Gibb has not done his homework. Despite quoting Hirsch a lot, Gibb has apparently only ever sent him one email. We are invited to think that Gibb should have been checking his ideas more thoroughly with Hirsch prior to making claims based on his work.
Yet Hirsch has a large corpus of writing that makes abundantly clear what he thinks. And it seems to me that Gibb references it entirely appropriately. In this speech from 2010, Gibb cites Hirsch as an advocate for teaching core knowledge and someone who traces the anti-knowledge current in education back to Teachers College, Columbia University and John Dewey. This is accurate. In his article for Policy Exchange earlier this year, Gibb focuses on Hirsch providing the social justice argument for a knowledge-based curriculum and against the kind of generic skills that were at the centre of the 2007 National Curriculum (England and Wales). Again, this is all entirely consistent with Hirsch’s writing and demonstrates that Gibb is actually a pretty good student of Hirsch. At no point does Gibb claim that Hirsch is right-wing (quite the reverse) or that Hirsch thinks skills should be not taught at all or that the curriculum should involve rote recitation of facts.
Indeed, the word ‘rote’ is rarely used by advocates of Hirsch’s ideas. In his Policy Exchange essay, Gibb actually complains about its use by critics of the government. ‘Rote’ is pretty pejorative because it implies learning something without understanding. Such an aim would be inconsistent with Hirsch’s goals because it would not aid reading comprehension; the nub of his argument for a knowledge-based curriculum. Indeed, in “The Schools We Need”, Hirsch includes a glossary of popular edu-jargon with an entry on how the term “rote learning” is used rhetorically against teaching knowledge. He explains that, “valid objections to purely verbal, fragmented, and passive education have, however, been used as a blunt instrument to attack all emphasis on factual knowledge and vocabulary.”
And yet Severs makes the claim that “Hirsch has become associated with rote learning and being against group and project work” Really? Who by? It is apparently exemplified when Birbalsingh says, “Hirsch makes clear that a ‘traditional teaching of knowledge’, not ‘progressive’ methods, fosters a child’s self esteem.”
Erm… if you know just one thing about Hirsch then it is probably that he is in favour of teaching knowledge and, well, this is a pretty traditional aim of education. So I don’t see anything inaccurate about that. And Hirsch does indeed discuss ‘progressive’ methods which he traces back to the romantic movement and which he criticises on the grounds that they de-emphasise the teaching of knowledge.
The problem, perhaps, is that ‘progressive methods’ encapsulates a number of different ideas both about what should be taught – generic skills over knowledge – and how it should be taught – group work and project work over explicit instruction. I would agree with Hirsch that we don’t want to pump knowledge into students by rote, but are Gibb or Birbalsingh or anyone else using Hirsch’s name to make this case? Taking it further, suppose that I agreed with Hirsch that teaching knowledge is important but expressed the view that a particular teaching method is not very good at achieving this. Would I be claiming that Hirsch opposes that teaching method? Not really. Not unless I make that claim explicitly. Perhaps there’s some confusion around this?
On the issue of teaching methods, Hirsch actually has a number of interesting things to say. In “The Schools We Need” he writes about the progressive trope of characterising traditional education as ‘passive’:
“The caricature is another example of the way a valid point gets carried too far through simplistic slogans, causing teachers to become polarised and to reject sensible practices. The implication is that whole-class instruction makes the teacher boss instead of friendly coach, leads children to become docile and unable to think for themselves. Progressivists claim that this docility is just what traditionalists want to achieve, whereas progressive methods will produce independent-minded, active students who think for themselves. To the extent that more “active” methods like “discovery learning” provide children with less factual knowledge on which to base independent judgements, the claim to produce independent-mindedness seems doubtful.”
Interestingly, given the argument about group work and project work that nobody seems to be making, Hirsch also cautions us on the use of these methods:
“The wise and effective orchestration of several groups in a classroom is difficult to do well, needing careful monitoring, clear purposes, and definite incentives. A faith that the method itself will providentially take care of results is not warranted. Cooperative learning, used with restraint, can be an excellent method of instruction when used in conjunction with whole-class instruction. It has not been effective when used as the principal or exclusive means of instruction…
…The [project] method was based on a Romantic faith in the superiority of a natural to an artificial approach to learning. It claimed, incorrectly, to be based also on the latest findings in psychology. Subsequently, observers found the project method to be the least effective mode of pedagogy in use in American schools.”
Like most educators, Hirsch emphasises a balance of approaches but he also stresses that unfashionable teaching methods such as explicit, sequenced, whole-class teaching, have their place and can be highly effective; “The only general principle that seems to arise from process-outcome research on pedagogy is that focused and guided instruction is far more effective than naturalistic, discovery, learn-at-your-own-pace instruction.” This is noteworthy in a climate where we are often told the opposite.
Perhaps the concern is more that people are drawing inspiration from Hirsch and then going beyond his ideas? His attention is on ages 3-11, which is reasonable given his focus on reading comprehension and the ‘fourth grade slump’. Hirsch’s core knowledge curriculum addresses this age group and is his lever for trying to improve whole education systems. Clearly, if we get primary school right then this should have a positive impact.
But does this mean that we have to reject his thinking if we are involved in secondary schools? Does the value of background knowledge suddenly disappear at the age of 12? What about kids who have had a knowledge-lite curriculum up until this point? Do we give up on them? Limiting a discussion of Hirsch’s ideas in this way is a bit like saying that Martin Luther King should not have drawn inspiration from Gandhi because Gandhi’s ideas of non-violent resistance were ‘about India’.
So it’s pretty hard to swallow this idea that we’ve all got Hirsch wrong. I can see why it is an appealing narrative, the notion that right-wing ministers and heads of demonic free schools are a bit silly and misinformed – a slap in the face for the traditionalists – or worse, that they may be ‘wilfully’ misrepresenting Hirsch.
But it seems to be a narrative in search of supporting evidence.