Edfest: E.D.Hirsch

Speaking on Skype about a conservative curriculum for disadvantaged children. He realised that a certain amount of background knowledge is assumed and called this cultural literacy, and that this is what should be taught in American high schools.

Lindsay Johns is sitting in the seat directly in front of me in this one. Daisy Christodolou is across the aisle. If I can spot one more I can call bingo.

Hirsch says it’s important to have this cultural literacy to achieve economic fairness and carry out you duties as a citizen of a democracy. Bad communication holds people back. We have to narrow the achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged.

How do you feel that your ideas have been adopted by the conservative side of the debate than the liberal? The reason for this is because what I suggested looked like an old fashioned curriculum. It was American centric and seen as a throw back, and that was correct. If you’re socially progressive, you have to be conservative in education, though not necessarily in politics.

Is this not just the ruling class’s promotion of their story? Yes, but if you teach the serfs the habits and knowledge of the ruling class, you allow them access to it.

It’s all very well for the more able students, but it alienates the weaker…? The evidence is all against that. All abilities are absorbing this with enthusiasm where we have trailed it. Students need information before they can think critically. What alternative is being offered to this by the liberal wing, that is different to what you’re already doing, which isn’t working?

Interviewer answers this by saying the suggestion is to teach the skills alone and they will choose their knowledge. Hirsch says it doesn’t work. How are the kids going to access the information if they can’t access it with understanding? Hirsch talks about the nature of the skills themselves, the study of which shows that you can’t extract the skills from the context. He cites chess players as an example. The skills are domain specific and you need knowledge in order to be skilled in any field. If you want to be a skilled person, you have to be deeply factually knowledgable. It’s reminds me of what Tm said this morning about teachers needing to have excellent subject knowledge in order to be able to teach is effectively.

You set up the core knowledge foundation and was that a bit of a departure for you? Yes, it was a big departure. I intended to remain a theorist of hermeneutics, but the more I read the more ideal aid relevant background knowledge is absolutely critical and I felt I had an obligation to tell people and bring the news from the research front. What pushed me over the edge was coming across university students who could only read well in familiar topics and it was disorienting to me. That and an observation that schools was not doing their jobs got me started.

Have your schools provided a robust data set to advance your cause? Yes, although it is hard to make comparisons and there’s not a huge body of it. We have highly positive research, but we should not disparage the lab research that led is here in the first place.

Why do you think the educational establishment are irrationally resistant? In America, here, France? In the US, there are historical reasons why everyone thinks the same way. The teachers all came our with a similar progressive orientation and it was enforced. Dissent is not encouraged. In education schools. It’s like betraying the group if you are heterodox and you are drummed out of the group, which is scary if you want tenure. The orthodoxy took hold.

It’s a paradox that the profs who are against the knowledge agenda don’t think critically about their own practice and are more susceptible to group think, yes? Well, there’s a theory, by a psychics prof, that professors never change their minds and you have to wait for them to be replaced. I hope that the wider public become more knowledgable about cognitive science and agitates for change.

Do you enjoy playing devil’s advocate? This isn’t what I set out to be. I thought I would write about cultural literacy and then go back to hermeneutics.

Finally, how optimistic are you that your ideas will be taken up and the argument will be won? More or less than the start of your career? I guess a little more than in the early 90s, when we couldn’t be having this conversation. It’s heartening to think it might one day win the day.

See it on nosacredcows.co.uk

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