Yesterday, I spoke at Making Shift Happen in Amsterdam. It was a wonderful event. I’m not aware of anything like Academica Business College, the group that pulled it all together, in Australia or the U.K. and it was clear that all the speakers were impressed with just how professional and energetic an organisation they are.
A couple of issues arose on social media that I would like to clarify.
While E D Hirsch Jr was speaking, I tweeted a summary of one of his points that has proved provocative:
It’s worth expanding on.
Imagine you started reading to a group of students about a fictional character and you said, “Mr Jones was a wealthy merchant. His property covered the space of two football fields in the centre of town.”
In order to fully appreciate that statement, students need to create a ‘situation model’. They need to be able to picture what two football fields looks like. They need to know that a merchant is an occupation. They need to realise that the second sentence is connected to the first, that property in the centre of town is often expensive and so the fact that Mr Jones has a large property demonstrates his wealth. None of these are obvious things that students will just know.
If all the students possess this knowledge, they would form what Hirsch termed a ‘speech community’ of shared understandings. If we do nothing with students except allow them to grow and flourish at their own pace, we do nothing to intervene in the development of speech communities. What is more, students from privileged backgrounds will be receiving a lot of this knowledge from home whereas their less advantaged peers will not and so the gap will grow ever wider. This will then exacerbate the differential effects of later teaching because the more advantaged children will be able to build situation models and learn more from texts than those who cannot build them.
Hirsch suggested dealing with this both in the moment, e.g. by providing relevant knowledge before reading a passage with students, and by ensuring that earlier stages of education expose children to rich webs of ideas in a planned way. To my mind, this is not necessarily a plea for formal learning in kindergarten because much of this would be achieved through discussion and the selection of stories and materials.
The second point is about my own talk. While I was speaking, one member of the audience tweeted some of his thoughts and a lot of people responded. This is unfortunate because in some instances he tweeted the direct opposite of what I actually said:
The main point I made about differentiation, and one I have made before, is that it is poorly defined. Differentiation can mean a wide variety of practices, some of which are wholly contradictory, as I illustrated with a slide about whether we accommodate or address a specific need.
Student choice is a central part of some approaches to differentiation such as Universal Design for Learning, but not a part of others. Complaining that I had not defined differentiation adequately therefore misses the sense of what I was suggesting by a very long way and yet this comment was seized upon by others who were not present:
It could be my fault for not communicating well enough and this may have been a factor given that there was a language barrier to overcome. However, a number of people came to ask me questions after the talk and none of them seemed to be confused by this point. I therefore cannot help wondering if there was some kind of pre-existing Netherlands agenda playing out.