Why knowledge (particularly at primary school) matters

I have just read E.D Hirsch’s latest offering in one sitting. Just as Peal’s ‘Progressively Worse‘ suddenly opened my eyes and made sense of why I was feeling so instinctively uneasy during my SCITT year, this book has also opened my eyes to the importance of knowledge as the meat-and-two-veg of education, not just because knowledge in and of itself is useful and interesting, but because a ‘well-stocked mind is the skill of skills’. I was pleasantly surprised to realise that Hirsch was talking about the teaching of knowledge in the primary years, with significant evidence that supports the case for a dramatic move away from child-centred education, particularly for the sake of those disadvantaged children. I was actually under the impression, judging from the popularity of the book among those associated with secondary education, that it was written about the importance of knowledge in general, or just in secondary schools and that, as usual, I would have to extrapolate down into the primary setting using my own experience.

Yet, it was as if E. D. Hirsch was talking directly to me.

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Firstly, let me try to sum up the chapters, then I will talk about how this has shone a light on what I already see and know about British primary schools, including a small aspect of Hirsch’s proposal that I disagree with. Finally, I have an idea about how to further break the problem of the ‘romantic intellectual monopoly that has held us all in thrall’ that Hirsch speaks of. Here’s the in-a-nutshell version of what I have just read:

  • Prologue: The 3 all-pervading yet now disproved ideas of naturalism, individualism and skill-centrism have taken hold, negatively affecting children’s education, particularly the education of disadvantaged children. This shows up as particularly poor verbal and general test scores in late teens with the rot being attributed to lack of knowledge teaching and vocabulary augmentation in the early primary years. You see, without that scaffold of basic knowledge and vocabulary, further knowledge and vocabulary has nothing to ‘stick’ to.
  • Ch 1. Invalid testing: Reading tests in primary schools as we know them are actually tests of knowledge in disguise, even though so many teachers try to teach the ‘skills’ of comprehension. The research shows that it is best to take a long-range view and teach lots of knowledge such that children, particularly disadvantaged children (who do not have that extra education at home), acquire domain specific vocabulary and knowledge to access reading tests, becoming good readers in the process.
  • Ch 2. Scapegoating of Teacher: The reason children do so badly in reading tests is not because of the teachers, but because of the effects of the 3 ideas outlined above that lead to children lacking vocabulary and knowledge needed to access the reading tests. What really helps teachers, and therefore the education of children, is if they, by working in a cooperative way, taught a specific and coherent curriculum that builds on what is taught in the previous academic year, rather than a topic-incoherent system.
  • Ch 3. Preschool and the persistence of fadeout: After preschool, children’s excellent progress stalls and once again the disadvantaged children suffer more than advantaged children. The verbally impoverished home life of disadvantaged children becomes the dominant theme inside the primary school when the primary school chooses not to teach children new knowledge and its associated vocabulary.
  • Ch 4. Dilution of the elementary curriculum: Knowledge is not built up systematically in most primary schools partly because of this insidious belief in ‘developmental readiness’. Even Piaget revised his thoughts on developmental stages when he realised that a good knowledge base can mean children are ready for new learning much earlier than previously thought. Basically, ‘developmentally ready’ is more about external influences (ie good teaching) and not internally proscribed as is often thought. By clinging to the concept of ‘natural development’, educators promote anti-verbalism and anti-intellectual policies that keep interesting knowledge from the disadvantaged child as well as preventing him from developing his vocabulary and ability to communicate in the public sphere. Further notes are that differentiation is technically impossible to achieve, talking and listening is a great way to augment vocabulary in the early years (just as parents of those advantaged children do), looking things up is frustrating and gives poor results , ‘all purpose’ critical thinking skills cannot be taught because they don’t actually exist and the systematic acquisition of knowledge is proven to overcome differences in IQ, text complexity and reading ability.
  • Ch 5. Persistence of achievement gaps: Schools can offset disadvantage if they are good at imparting a strong, coherent curriculum just like the Catholic schools do (and the opposite is also true). The best way to augment vocabulary and knowledge is through domain immersion because this is how learning new vocabulary becomes implicit. What doesn’t work is following children’s interests such that they end up with gaps in knowledge and vocabulary.
  • Ch 6. Tribulations of the Common Core: There is a problem with educators’ obsession with ‘developing imagination’ via too much fiction dominating English teaching sequences, but actually children need a high proportion of non-fiction to provide substance for the imagination. Luckily, the Common Core mandates a 50:50 split of fiction and non-fiction in English teaching. Further, ’21st Century skills’ actually depend on high verbal ability which in turn relies on a shared inventory of knowledge and words; teach the knowledge and words and the high verbal ability will come, which will then facilitate those 21st Century Skills.
  • Ch 7. Educational fall of France: France used to have a centrally mandated knowledge-based curriculum and, subsequently, a high PISA ranking. Then it fell hook, line and sinker for the progressive way and dramatically changed its primary curriculum so that it became skills-based, naturalistic and child-centred, resulting in dramatic falls in PISA rankings. What hurried the change along was falling test results and increasing numbers of children needing to re-take years; the knowledge-based curriculum was blamed for these problems when it turned out that the real fault lay at the door of progressive teaching methods which were creeping into the early years, resulting in increasing numbers of children who couldn’t actually read or write (or access the sequential knowledge-based curriculum).
  • Ch 8. The Knowledge based school: Knowledge-based education makes a massive difference to the achievement and success of disadvantaged (as well as advantaged) children and it needs to happen early in a child’s academic life. A systematic approach in primary schools results in everyone being happy because children are more prepared for secondary and they actually love learning new knowledge anyway. Likewise, the teacher can actually enjoy teaching, leading to lower turnover. Secondary school is actually too late! There is a problem with it being rather difficult to change romantic ideas; leadership is needed not just in schools, but in the community in order for positive change to happen. Once the first few schools go in for the knowledge-based way and children’s achievement improves, then the evidence shows that parents, when offered a choice, will tend to choose these schools for their children because they actually prefer something that is more like a private-style education.
  • Epilogue. Breaking free: We need to replace individualistic ideas with communitarian ones. Unfortunately, progressive ideas still dominate in early education, but only a knowledge-specific curriculum can overcome inequality of opportunity. Can we effect change across a whole district and create that watershed event in our educational history? Hirsch believes this could happen.

My thoughts:

Of course, I totally agree with Hirsch (how could I not? It all makes so much sense!). For me, I feel liberated to teach a true Geography or History lesson, complete with domain specific reading matter, because the children really do prefer it and it does indeed seem to go together with enhanced learning of vocabulary! However, this also makes me think about what exactly children are learning during those comprehension and guided reading sessions that take up so much time in the typical primary school. Hirsch speaks of a watershed event in our educational history and I firmly believe that such an event will come about in primary schools, not secondary schools.

Hirsch brought to my attention the fact that disadvantaged children tend to move schools more often. He recommends a nationally/regionally proscribed topic curriculum so that disadvantaged children who have to move frequently (a major consideration in the UK because of our housing crisis) can at least experience consistency in the crucial primary years. I’ve always believed that we need to have a Shanghai-style maths curriculum that is mapped out lesson by lesson, with a textbook to go with it, but now I actually think we could do with something a bit more prescriptive for children’s ‘topic’ lessons. The upside to this would be that disadvantaged children could move schools and still get a consistent education, but also parents would be more engaged (as they are in the Far East by helping their children at home) and of course we would avoid this situation where children are immersed in vacuous and minimally academic topics such as ‘All about me’ or ‘The circus’.

Where I might split hairs is with Hirsch’s concession that we should retain some aspects of progressive education which he felt were pretty good, such as the focus on child happiness and, in his words, more ‘humane’ methods of teaching which I infer as more informal arrangements of teaching within the classroom. Now, I’m slightly wary of this viewpoint because in my view traditional education is not just about curriculum, but also about training children to be more scholarly in their disposition such that they are able to concentrate and work in an increasingly focused way. Scholarly behaviour and its associated attitudes do not happen by accident and if they appear to do so, it is usually because of the influence of parents or background culture. Just as Hirsch advocates that we make up for the verbally impoverished home lives of disadvantaged children through knowledge-based education, I would also advocate that we make up for the lack of routine, deferred gratification and discipline that also feature in the home lives of disadvantaged children. How can a teacher teach knowledge if the children are not able to fully listen and concentrate?

Further, I believe this ‘intellectual monopoly’ could actually be broken by parents themselves, but only if they actually knew what was going on. The work of PTE will go a long way to remedying this situation, as will the influence of brave leaders in primary schools, but the real change could happen if parents, mothers in particular (who tend to make the final decision about where a child goes to school), are given the true picture of what is going on. The best time for this to happen is actually when women are at their most receptive to information about the upbringing of children, and this isn’t when their children are at school: it’s when their children are toddlers or even babies and they’re consulting the various forums and magazines that have replaced the old inter-generational network of help and advice. I will not go into this further because it’s an idea that is at seedling stage for me and it will need to occupy my thoughts for a good while before I can act further.

Up next: Daisy C’s book about assessment.

Who’s with me?

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4 thoughts on “Why knowledge (particularly at primary school) matters

  1. Well articulated summary and thoughts! As a secondary teacher, I often envision the kind of school I’d create, and increasingly, I imagine including younger grades. Hirsch makes it clear, as do you, how important the early years of schooling are in order to maximize the positive impact on students. I look forward to your take on Daisy’s new book!

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  2. Student centric where kids dictate the learning is the refuge of lazy (overworked ?) teachers and makes lazy kids. Without direction and goals too much time is spent on interuptions by the student who wants quick effort-free fixes; this is often compounded by dodgy IT.
    The problem is that such failings take years to become apparent. Individuals’ skill shortages are overlooked as they are progressed thru their short educational career towards dumbed down exams and NEET-dom.

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