E D Hirsch Jr’s article on why specific knowledge matters

At the start of December, the Times Educational Supplement (TES) in London published an article by E D Hirsch Jr. The article was linked to Hirsch’s new book, “Why Knowledge Matters,” which I encourage you to read.

The piece is paywalled but the TES produced a teaser which caused a stir because this teaser claimed that Hirsch suggests mainstream science does not support the use of direct instruction. I am a promoter of both Hirsch’s ideas and direct instruction (which I tend to refer to as ‘explicit instruction’). Had I, and others with similar views, been made to look a little silly?

When I read the article itself, I wasn’t clear that Hirsch’s comments supported the line in the teaser.

One explanation which is consistent with Hirsch’s book is that the statements that he makes about Direct Instruction refer to specific literacy programs developed by Engelmann and colleagues and reflect Hirsch’s belief that the positive effects of these programs wash out over time due to their failure to address the issue of world knowledge. Note that I have capitalised the first letters of ‘Direct Instruction’. This is the convention that many use to distinguish Engelmann-style programs from explicit instruction more generally.

I decided to contact Hirsch to clear this up. He indicated that the teaser was inaccurate and offered the following explanation of his comments on Direct Instruction:

“The evidence is clear that explicit instruction, well conducted is more effective than inexplicit instruction. Lab research, Project Follow Through, common sense, are unanimous about that. My comment on Success for All and Bereiter-Engelmann in my book was that DI modes were great for teaching what they taught, did so more effectively than indirect methods, but what they taught was misconceived. And that’s why they had limited positive effects on mature literacy. That’s what I said in my recent book.”

So that clarifies Hirsch’s position. He also gave me permission to publish the unedited version of the article on this blog which I do below. Note the use of capital letters for ‘Direct Instruction’ which became lower case in the version published in the TES. 

Why Specific Knowledge Matters

E. D. Hirsch, Jr.

While I was writing my just-published book “Why Knowledge Matters” a controversy erupted in New York State over an early-reading program that I helped develop, called “Core Knowledge Language Arts.” The program had been selected as the official early-childhood reading program of New York State. Placed on the websites of the state and of the Core Knowledge Foundation, the program was downloadable for free by New York schools and anybody else. Such programs normally cost schools thousands of dollars. Even factoring in printing costs, a great deal of money can be saved over the years by making use of this free program — which had been shown to be outstandingly effective in a twenty-school, three-year trial in New York City. Nonetheless, many teachers resisted, saying that the new program was “developmentally inappropriate.”

“Developmentally inappropriate” is a term used freely by early-childhood teachers. They have been taught to believe that education should follow a natural path of growth, so that exposing a young child to adult material prematurely is fruitless, harmful and boring. That sentiment had already caught on by 1929 when Antonio Gramsci, the brilliant socialist thinker imprisoned by Mussolini, wrote the following in one of his “Prison Notebooks”:

“The new education has become a kind of church that has paralyzed educational thought, and has given rise to some curious inversions. It is almost imagined that the brain of the child is like a ball of yarn that the teacher should help to unwind.”  

This naturalistic “new education” has now held on for more than a century. It is still received doctrine that an untimely Imposing of “rote-learned” facts on children before they are “developmentally ready” will harm their “development” and kill their joy in learning. In the Core Knowledge controversy, the most celebrated instance of such untimeliness was a first-grade unit on Mesopotamia. Here’s a typical teacher’s internet comment on the unit: “It’s NOT age appropriate. Six-year-olds should be learning about their own communities and surroundings.”  

But that view isn’t based on accurate child psychology, and it is socially regressive. The famous psychologist Jerome Bruner stated years ago that any topic, properly presented, can be taught at any school age. Moreover, from the standpoint of social justice, withholding knowledge from poor children that rich children routinely gain is socially regressive. Middle-class parents in the U.S. have been harmlessly teaching their first graders about Mesopotamia for the last twenty-five years, from my book “What Your First Grader Needs to Know” (1991). Bored by the nullity of “our house” and “our community,” first graders and their parents have been charmed by learning tongue twisters like the “Code of Hammurabi,” and the chance connection between Mesopotamia and a hippopotamus. By sticking to “our community” the teachers of less advantaged children whose parents lack the means, education, or leisure to read such things to their children, are further holding back children who have already been held back.  

Mesopotamia is a trivial example, of course. It happened to be the lightning rod for New York State. Yet the issues raised by the incident are anything but trivial. My new book shows that in the United States, the idea of natural development, that is, the idea of tailoring the content of education to the development of the individual child has, along with related misconceptions, resulted in the following misfortunes: the narrowing of the early curriculum, the over-testing of students for non-existent general skills, and the widening of the achievement gap between rich and poor students as they progress through the grades.  

The book’s critiques are consistent with consensus science in psycholinguistics, cognitive science, and developmental psychology. I argue that the scientific consensus in these fields is the nearest we come to the reality principle in education. That’s why I invited well-known researchers — Steven Pinker, Susan Neuman, Daniel Willingham — to blurb my new book rather than asking public figures or representatives of any particular educational policy. I’m gratified that these scientists have endorsed the arguments of the book.  

My claim of scientific accuracy is strategic for the book’s ideas, because they are heterodox ideas in current American education. My book claims that our guiding theories and policies in the schools do not comport with the current scientific consensus, and that this explains our frustrations. We have recently become disappointed in policies and programs that seemed experimentally promising such as smaller class size, Direct Instruction, and Success for All. They were all supported by carefully conducted experiments. But in the long run they have disappointed. We have been likewise disappointed by the charter-school movement.  

These disappointments suggest that mainstream science needs to be our guide, not confident slogans nor educational experiments. The uncontrolled variables in short-term educational research fly in every direction. Education is a long-range process.  

I therefore argue that it’s time to look at policies that flow from relevant scientific principles that are strongly supported by largescale international school data. The consensus in basic science represents the reality principle in education. Any educational proposal or policy that runs counter to that consensus is likely to disappoint. This intellectual corrective is especially important when it comes to two ideas in particular: the importance of developmentally-appropriate practice, and the existence of general, all-purpose skills like finding the main idea, problem-solving, and critical-thinking.  

In current scientific literature, skilled performance is rarely called a general “skill”. The current term of choice is “expertise.” The verbal contrast between skill and expertise is important because the term “skill” has allowed educators to adopt the convenient but incorrect principle that the specific content of education is less critical than the development of general skills like problem-solving, and critical-thinking and finding the main idea. It turns out that these supposedly general competences simply do not exist as all-purpose skills independent of specific knowledge domains. There are few all-purpose, free-floating skills. Skills are dependent on specific knowledge. A key term in the current scientific literature is “domain-specific.” Most of the competences that children need to learn in school are domain-specific competences.  

This finding has exceptionally strong implications for schooling. If skills matter, as everyone concedes, then domain-specific knowledge must matter a great deal. The specific contents of a school curriculum matter crucially. The claim that “you can always look it up” is an outmoded slogan. You can only look things up effectively if you already possess preparatory, domain-relevant knowledge. Our slogans about general skills and our brave new world of instant internet information all need to be re-examined. Psychologically, they are not reality-based.  

But above all we need to reconceive our faith in individual natural development – the view, as Wordsworth put it, that “Nature never did betray the heart that loved her.” In developmental psychology, emphasis is gradually shifting from the word “development” towards the word “culture.” The differentness of a child’s development within different languages and cultures has become a major theme in the developmental field. To his great credit, Piaget himself heralded that change in a speech of 1964 when he conceded that “maturation is not everything.”  

This points up a paradox concerning “natural” development. It’s now understood that letting a child unfold naturally according to its own time clock like a ball of yarn is quite an unnatural proceeding for human beings. What is natural for a child is to be inducted into the particular language and value-orientations of a particular culture. And these cultures are quite varied. The word “culture” is now understood to be a co-determinant of “development.” This leads to the paradox that so-called “unnatural” education is inherently natural, whereas naturalistic education is inherently unnatural. This shift in scientific understanding has implications for educational policy and practice: Truly natural development for human beings includes acculturation. In our post-agrarian era, with the rise of cities and nations, when parents have partially relinquished education to schools, a chief responsibility of schools is acculturation. The abstract, naturalistic approach does not work.

The story that I tell in my book thus has two subplots: the story of policies that do not work, and the story of the underlying ideas that have caused us to persist in those policies. It’s possible that the intellectual-history sub-plot could be the main contribution of the book. Absent changes in our underlying convictions about individualism and natural development, we are unlikely to make fundamental changes in our practice.  

After many years in educational discussions I think I can now identify the chief underlying idea that needs changing. I call it providential individualism – the focus on the unique individual rather than on acculturation, combined with the belief that some supervening providence like nature or the free market can guide our educational policies. On the contrary it’s neither providence nor nature but we adults who need to decide quite specifically what our children shall know and be able to do. The book thus accuses both the naturalistic left and the market-oriented right of misplaced providentialism. The critique thus includes most of my colleagues in the school world. My main aim has been clarity. To offend everybody is one of the few prerogatives left to old age.


12 thoughts on “E D Hirsch Jr’s article on why specific knowledge matters

  1. KenS says:

    Thanks for doing the legwork to clear this up – I had been wondering what Hirsch might have meant every since you first blogged about this “teaser.” It seems your prediction about what he was really saying turns out to have been right on the money. Thanks also for getting permission to print Hirsch’s unedited article.

  2. There’s some justification for Hirsch’s criticism of the current emphasis in education on generic skills and the view of developmental readiness that emerged from Piaget’s work. And he’s right to look to scientific research for the reality principle in education. However, he seems to be replacing one set of rather rickety ideas with another.

    Hirsch doesn’t make a distinction between reliability and validity in research findings; instead he relies on ‘consensus’. He overlooks the fact that the model of child development he disparages was once the consensus view of scientists.

    He also relies on the terms scientists use as indicators of validity. According to Hirsch ‘skill’ has been replaced by ‘expertise’ and ‘development’ by ‘culture’. He overlooks the fact that ‘skill’ and ‘expertise’ have specific meanings and mean different things. As do ‘development’ and ‘culture’. Changes over time in frequency of usage of particular terms in the research literature indicate only a shift in research interests, not necessarily a fundamental shift in meaning.

    Hirsch appears to be applying an approach to analysing literature (his own field) to three very different fields – psycholinguistics, cognitive science and developmental psychology. It’s an interesting analysis, but, ironically, overlooks the ‘domain-specific’ aspect of knowledge that he espouses; each of those domains has its own conceptual structure, frame of reference and terminology that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to literary analysis.

  3. What I found depressing was the automatic defensiveness of Ed Dorrell’s tweet. Why didn’t he look into the issue before tweeting? The TES should publish a correction and apology.

    It’s possible that this was just a sub-editor getting it wrong (although the context, with Success for All capitalised as well, would indicate a very low quality of sub-editing). On the other hand, the TES has a history of biased reporting: I gave up on it some years ago because of their appallingly blatant anti-phonics agenda. I’ve been pleased to see recently, glancing through it on the newsstand, that they seem to have become more open-minded and balanced. But still a way to go, perhaps?

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  5. Terry Byers says:

    Hi Greg

    I found this article very interesting given the current narrative around STEM/STEAM. From my perspective (i could be wrong) this narrative emphasizes the notion of transference (between subjects) prior to the requisite surface and deep learning within a specific domain ( i found the latest article from Hattie and Donoghue (2016) the suggested surface, deep and transference model quite sound in this frame). We investigated, trialled and evaluated integrated or trans-disciplinary STEM subjects about 5 years ago. Often when teachers engaged with integrating subjects domains through the lens of STEM/STEAM, there appeared to be a compulsion for transfer too early in the piece (without the requisite grounding in each subject discipline). This often led to superficial student understanding of the subject matter, with only those with a deep conceptual understanding coping with the tasks at hand. Furthermore, often in the maths and sciences, the specific level of understanding required by the teacher in each domain was a significant mediating variable in the success of each unit/task. Teachers often taught well in their discipline of expertise (i.e. chemistry, physics or mathematics), but felt out of their depth when teaching outside their area. This fact alone meant that what students produced in these STEM subjects, was often influenced by teacher discipline background. Collectively, these experiences led to moving beyond offering STEM as a prescribed subject in our curriculum offering. Instead, teachers use the collective expertise of their peers (from other subject disciplines) when it provides significant enrichment to their specific subject (but we stick to a more conventional subject offering). Also, our students work in small groups in focused enrichment opportunities outside the required school curriculum. Often these students bring specific discipline interest/understanding to the group, with each adopting a specific role, but work together to a final goal.

    In summary, i found the work of Hirsch to promote significant contemplation of how best to work within the current prevalence of STEM/STEAM.

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  9. Thanks for debunking (once again) the foundational philosophy of the Next Generation Science Standards. Discovery learning without the requisite background knowledge is frustrating, confusing, and often leads to misunderstanding. The main thing a kid will discover is how much they dislike trying to (ineffectively) teach themselves. Amazing to me that the Knowledge Wars are still being fought.

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