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

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Abstract: 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 introduction: 
  1. Abstract [This blog]
  2. Hirsch
  3. Knowledge

The Matthew Effect  - For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. - (Matthew 25:29)

ED Hirsch Jnr has cited The Matthew Effect in his writing and lectures. Quite simply there is a great danger in our current education systems that the ‘rich get richer, while the poor get poorer’. He maintains that in order to avoid The Matthew Effect we need to cumulatively and systematically build up the background knowledge and vocabulary that students need to understand classroom discourse; long range preparation is key to avoid this undesirable effect on achievement and future prospects.

The RE teacher understands the context of The Matthew Effect within the Parable of the Talents; despite not being created entirely equally, God rewards the effort of those who work for his will. Students in the classroom are limited by the level of effort that they put in, but they are potentially equally limited in their achievements by the education provided. Hirsch calls this cultural literacy: educated, middle-class families may provide this at home, but for some students it is imperative that it comes from schools and teachers.

Critics of Hirsh’s approach of setting out systematic and cumulative core knowledge that should be learnt at each stage of a child's education, point out that in the UK we do not have the fragmentation of education like in the US. We have state exams, we have a National Curriculum. However in RE we have around 150 Locally Agreed Syllabuses, a growing number of free schools and academies (who can opt out of their LAS), plus schools with a religious character who can opt to study their own syllabus. The quality is variable, and the work (and expense) of writing and reviewing syllabuses immense.

It seems that this may be the moment to consider if RE would benefit from a core curriculum that sets out the knowledge that students should have at each key stage. This knowledge should not be seen as a limiting fence, but more an open gateway to importing their knowledge and understanding of religion and beliefs, as well as developing critical thinking skills. Such a system would provide a minimum standard for all syllabuses, improve the rigour and academic nature of the subject and even provide a benchmarking tool for schools with a religious character.

This series of blog posts aims to explore the possibilities, advantages and criticisms of such an approach to RE.

Image courtesy: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Frans_Hals_-_St_Matthew_-_Museum_of_Western_European_and_Oriental_Art,_Odessa.jpg 

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Exam Questions (Or Lack Of)

For me, the greatest challenge of a new specification is the lack of examination questions. Currently our GCSE (Edexcel) goes back to 2010 and our A-Level (also Edexcel) goes back to 2009 [There were January exams until 2014 doubling papers available].

Obviously you shouldn't be just teaching to the exam (and I don't), but getting technique right is vital. 

As such, I am looking for RE teachers to help work collaboratively to share their attempts at question writing, given the limited SAMs available so we have a collection to share and assess students with.

The access is set so you can comment on the documents - if you add a question via a comment, I will add to the main document - but also feel free to offer improvement to the questions that I have already attempted. I do not profess to being an expert on these!

[NB these are only Edexcel A-Level questions, as we are not doing the AS]

If teachers are interested in setting up a more comprehensive document for different specs, A-Level and AS, get in touch.

Social media, and the internet more widely, has provided us with potential solutions to problems that teachers and departments would have had to face individually in the past. Google Drive provides a tool to make it work successfully.

Image courtesy of: http://www.publicdomainpictures.net/view-image.php?image=8422&picture=empty