Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Hirsch: The place of a core knowledge curriculum in RE [Series]

I will be publishing a series of blog posts which were initially to feature in a book about RE. This is the part one on Hirsch.
  1. Abstract
  2. Hirsch [This blog]
  3. Knowledge

Who is Hirsch? 

Eric Donald Hirsch, Jr. is an American educator, academic literary critic and author of a series of books about Cultural Literacy and Core Knowledge. He is currently professor emeritus of education and humanities at the University of Virginia in the United States of America.

He could not understand why many of this undergraduate students could not read and accurately interpret information about the American revolution. Hirsch realised this was because they simply did not have the background information to do so. He also noticed that this was predominantly among black student who could interpret other passages on different topics, such as those about their own lives. The conclusion that Hirsh made, was that his students were receiving an inconsistent schooling, often based on race, and this lack of knowledge was stopping their further learning.

As a result, from the 1990’s onwards, Hirsch began writing and publishing a series entitled the Core Knowledge Grader Series which detailed Core Knowledge Sequence (CKS) for each grade. Each book contains detailed information as well as related readings and resources, and have been updated over the years. These have lead to the formation of Core Knowledge schools of which there are approximately 1,260 schools (2013-2014) in 46 states.

It is important to remember that the USA does not have any national leaving exams, like GCSEs or A-Levels. It does not have any form of national curriculum, and there is little national education policy. Even major Acts of Congress such as No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) did not provide a national achievement standard; crucially, education is not mentioned in the constitution. Each state has different education policy, and each state is split into separate school districts which have varying degrees of freedom and/or control. It is estimated that there is around 14,000 school districts, each of which can create their own curriculum. As such is it is difficult to monitor, measure and regulate.

Some saw Hirsch’s CKS as a way of bringing in some consistency to such a fragmented system.

His overall belief is well summed up in the introduction to his latest work, Why Knowledge Matters (2016; p2): "The achievement gap is chiefly a knowledge gap and a language gap. It can be greatly ameliorated by knowledge-based schooling."

Hirsch in the UK

The schools Minister Nick Gibb and former Education Secretary Michael Gove have both stated on numerous occasion that Hirsch has inspired the government’s recent work on schools and in particular the new National Curriculum, as well as GCSE and A-Level reforms. The think-tank Civitas has even developed an English version of the Core Knowledge Programme.

However there are some key differences between the USA and UK which need to be noted:
  • The UK has less variation in pre-university education as students complete external exams that have an element of comparability, even pre 2015 reform. This is nationally monitored by Ofsted and ISI.
  • There is a National Curriculum (NC) which has been used for many years. Some academies now opt out of this, but much of the content and skills built into the NC remain.
  • The Department for Education (DfE) and OFQUAL do provide national achievement standards.

Key Issues with Hirsch

There are three main issues cited by Hirsch’s critics:

The first is that by introducing a knowledge focused curriculum, rote learning is encouraged. This is potentially detrimental to a lifelong love of learning. Progressive educators have criticised Hirsch as they did not agree with the prioritisation of knowledge and facts. However, even some pro-knowledge educators have criticised Hirsch as his approach is superficial and not conducive to grasping the deep and complex concepts.

Secondly, students forget things. Despite learning bodies of knowledge at different points in their academic life, there is no guarantee that a student will remember it for any length of time.

Thirdly, and this is perhaps the most fundamental, who decides the body of knowledge? In the context of Hirsch, who is responsible for deciding what is ‘common’? In the UK the understanding of Hirsch is that a prescribed list is produced by an expert to ensure all children are equal, yet Hirsch has made it clear that he means students should be equally able to understand what is commonly understood by people in universities.

Is it easy to identify the information that will enable students to be more successful in later life? Hirsch’s central argument is that there is an identifiable body of core knowledge which students need to know to contribute effectively to society. Schools must undertake a primary responsibility for this, as parents may or may not be able to provide and contribute towards it.

Context for RE

There is an element of the fragmentation seen in the USA in the Locally Agreed Syllabus system, alongside the academy / free school opt out, plus curricula for schools with a religious character. Some have estimated there are around 150 different RE curricula followed in England.

The DfE annex (see <here>) now sets out the knowledge, in essence, that a GCSE in Religious Studies needs to cover. This has arguably been inspired by Hirsch.

There are key questions we need to be answered about any RE curriculum (feel free to add more in the comments section):
  • Which religions are studied?
  • Is the information from insider or outsider perspective?
  • How are 'big questions' / complex concepts addressed?
  • What, if any, prior knowledge can be assumed at any given stage?

Image courtesy of Politico

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