Before You Declare ED Hirsch’s ‘Core Knowledge’ As Evil, Know This:

As someone who was initially sceptical of the idea, let me reassure you: there is nothing inherently evil about ED Hirsch’s “Core Knowledge”. Go look at if for yourself. All it consists of is a year-by-year list of things it makes sense for students to be taught during their first 8 years of school.

So yes, I admit, at first I was massively sceptical. When Daisy Christodolou, author of The Seven Myths of Education, first told me about ED Hirsch, and the curriculum he was advocating as a great innovation for American schools, I was more than a little incredulous. Fearful it would simply require students to sit, dead-pan, learning about “dead white dudes” it was a relief to see that this is not what Hirsch advocates.

Instead the Core Knowledge curriculum describes fairy stories, songs, paintings, political speeches, biographies and an incredibly wide geographical spectrum – were any of us ever taught the Japanese feudal system?! The curriculum is intended for American children so some of it is unfamiliar to British eyes, but one can imagine replacing an Eleanor Roosevelt speech with one from Emily Pankhurst or the geography of Canada & Mexico with that of the EU. While those substitutions must carefully coincide with other aspects of the curriculum – phrases, spellings, ideas – I was nevertheless impressed with the exciting depths of the sequence.

Hence, I’ve since found it odd when people profess consternation about the sequence. It’s really just a specification for year groups – what’s so scary about that?

The main concerns about Core Knowledge tend to come from the following misconceptions:

  • It requires didactic teaching – It really doesn’t. There’s nothing about teaching method in the sequence. Teachers can teach the information however they wish.
  • It’s about profit-making – While there are textbooks to purchase, if you wish, that help deliver some of the Core Knowledge specification, the curriculum itself is free as are many other resources online.  This is no different than the way the National Curriculum has operated for over 20 years in England and if teachers across the country were all teaching the same things, then they could more easily share lesson plans, activities, etc. rather than having everyone running around spending their time reinventing the wheel or buying expensive packages from publishers.
  • This is a patriarchal, conservative curriculum that prefers ‘traditionalist’ materials over more culturally relevant information – While I’ve some sympathy with this argument, it’s over-egged. First, if you leave decisions down to individual teachers what is to stop the curriculum a child gets from being a ‘radicalist anarchist’ curriculum? And is that really any better? Secondly, we do need a process for deciding what goes into the National Curriculum and that process, ideally, would be fair but methodical and go a long way toward ironing out this concern. So far my best suggestion is a National Curriculum review board, though I’m currently working on a longer document giving several different ideas.
  • Core Knowledge is advocated by Daisy Christodolou who works for the Curriculum Centre. A bit of context: as stated above, Daisy is the author of “Seven Myths About Education a forceful book that advocates ensuring young people get lots of factual knowledge while at school because it is a springboard to lifelong learning. In the book Daisy advocates Hirsch’s Core Knowledge sequence, and because she works for The Curriculum Centre, a group creating a sequential UK curriculum, some opponents argue that  her advocacy is biased and that Core Knowledge is part of a wider marketing ploy for a profit-making enterprise. Thinking like this gets the genesis the wrong way round. Daisy was a fact-junkie, and advocating Hirsch to me, back in 2010. It was her sureness about the approach that led to her involvement with The Curriculum Centre, not the other way around. But more importantly Daisy’s experience in the classroom, and her job now, do not dictate whether this approach to the curriculum is a good one. Its merits should be based on what we know about how learning develops, student engagement, what things students need to know for the future, etc.

Perhaps there are other reasons why Core Knowledge is problematic, and why a similar approach could not work in England. Debra Kidd raised a good issue earlier in a Twitter conversation, where she feared that specifying texts (e.g. galleries and theatres then over-focus on these texts and other great works are lost) but so far these gripes seem minor and possible to overcome. A carefully planned sequential curriculum, nationally agreed through a fair&  judicious process, seems – at least to me – an entirely useful thing.



Categories: Curriculum

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12 replies

  1. Core curriculum arguments remind me of FR Leavis and the debate over the canon of English Literature. Core listing is only narrowing if you let it become a fence rather than a gate. You can’t teach Jane Austen without reading Pride and Predjudice; then you encourage reading of the other novels, then move students onto Thackeray by the time you have opened the gate you will have also experienced Bage, Richardson and so on. I use these as an example as this is what my English O’level did for me.

    When I teach my year 6 core knowledge I think of it as giving them a guidebook, it will start them off on the main roads, if I get it right they will go off down the side streets of a subject on their own, with a friend or with me. Children need encouragement to be creative, but they also need the tools to be creative with. The only time curriculums are a problem is when the are prescriptive and ring fenced so that you can’t move beyond the core..

  2. I don’t quite know why, Laura, but it leaves me cold. I envisage a future where the only Dickens anyone has ever read is whichever was on the curriculum and no-one ever argues about which one is best any more. That we produce generations of knowledge clones. I want to be able to choose to teach a text because it just so happens that it’s coming to the Royal Exchange next season. Or even worse, to have my choices restricted because only core texts ever come. I don’t want someone to tell me I have to teach Charlotte instead of Anne or Hamlet over Lear. I think we should be able to choose texts and areas of knowledge with local context and relevance in mind – Gaskell takes on particular resonance in Manchester for example. The comment above says it all for me – you CAN”T teach Austen without Pride and Prejudice…what about Emma? Mansfield Park? Sense and Sensibility? Any Austen novel is a good place to start. I can see the sense of saying that we should cover certain periods/genres in many subjects, but I do think that to even attempt to cram all that has been wonderful into the curriculum is doomed. It leaves us galloping through content instead of plundering the depths of something fascinating.

    And it leaves very little room for stepping back and saying ‘look at all the amazing things happening NOW.’ We leave a half term free each year for nowness. It is a unit which responds to an event happening in the world right at that time. There is little room for nowness in a content heavy core curriculum.

    I don’t think Hirsch is evil or that his intentions are bad – poverty of vocabulary, experience and cultural capital do need to be addressed if we are to even to begin to move towards a more equal society. But I don’t think we should be plugging gaps. I think we should be bridging them. And one of the loveliest things to do on a bridge is linger and take in the view.

  3. Sorry Debra, I didn’t mean to offend, also I didn’t you had to start with Pride and Prejudice, I meant it can’t be left out if you want an in depth knowledge at the end. I suppose I was also thinking of long term learning, I didn’t read the above books altogether but over a period of years. The first taught texts were introductions, they were the springboards. And it is why core curricula should be gateways. I also think, perhaps from the perspective of primary teaching, I am always going to be responsible for subjects I know very little about, so core guidelines are very useful.

  4. No, you didn’t offend – not at all. I was musing about the values of different texts and I think that’s the problem. If it said ’18th century literature’ then Austen would immediately spring to mind, but I think it’s much healthier for children all over the country to be reading different novels – having a slightly alternative gateway if you like. So if, say in primary, you HAD to teach ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ but there was a brilliant production of The Tempest on down the road from you, you’d be less likely to go to see the play. I think that’s sad – we should be able to be opportunistic – for me it’s a key part of what I think of as my professionalism. But you didn’t offend and I’m sorry if I was too gung-ho!

  5. Not at all, trouble with internet discussions you miss all the fun and subtlety of face to face ones. Not gung-ho at all and I am absolutely with you on opportunity teaching being taken up.
    Must apologise to MsMcInnery though, for hijacking her blog reply spot.

  6. To paraphrase Cameron and Brown from a while back ‘I agree with Debra’. Why on earth would you restrict the right of teachers to choose texts that inspire them or that have a specific cultural relevance to their children? I can ‘get’ that there’s a core of knowledge in history and geography, but it’s not knowledge in books, and we have to be careful not to lose sight of the fact that these people were writing FICTION and not fact.

    But yeah Laura I get that we are all over egging this thing a bit, I have been reading and listening to American teachers recently though and there are some voices crying out very loudly indeed against what a ‘core knowledge’ approach leads to in the end. Sometimes good intentions can lead to bad outcomes. Especially if you throw privatisation of schools into the mix.

  7. Hi Laura, my main concern with this conversation is that nobody is questioning Daisy’s assumption that her myths are commonly held. I have been a teacher for over 10 years now and have worked in and with many schools. Not once in this time have I come across a school in which these myths are so commonly held and accepted to justify a change of curriculum along Hirsch’s (via Christodolou) suggestions.

    Anyone can make up some myths and then justify policies to suit. Here are seven myths I’ve just made up:

    Myth One – Facts engender understanding
    Myth Two – Independent enquiry and discovery are bad
    Myth Three – The 21st century fundamentally changes nothing
    Myth Four – If you don’t already know, then it’s not worth knowing
    Myth Five – We should only transmit knowledge
    Myth Six – Rote learning is the best way to learn
    Myth Seven – Teaching knowledge is bias-free

    It’s not that these or Daisy’s myths aren’t true, it’s that they are not the whole truth. Reality is much more complex and nuanced. Reality abhors extremes.

    • I suspose no-one is questioning it here because this blog isn’t about Daisy’s myths. It’s about whether or not Core Knowledge is problematic. Even if we imagine that every one of Daisy’s myths was utterly incorrect (which I don’t) then there might still be perfectly good reasons to support Core Knowledge – and we should deal with these arguments, rather than make attacks on the book or Daisy’s level of experience.

      In the book Daisy shows that these myths may not be held by everyone but they have been perpetuated in places that set ‘the tone’ – e.g. Ofsted reports, curriculum documents, the national strategies, exemplar lessons. I’m with you in saying that I don’t think they are as commonly held as some people think, and I also think it’s true that because these are ‘myths’ it does not mean the opposite is necessarily true (i.e. because rote learning is not bad that it is necessarily the best way).

      But really….this blog is about the fact that a list of content which has been carefully planned to develop knowledge year on year is not a scary thing. In many ways, it’s quite pragmatic.

      • Hi Laura. Thanks for your reply. I do understand what this blog is about. I quite agree with what your saying. It makes a lot of sense to me, actually. In my mind – and in that of most teachers, I suspect – it’s never ben a question of either/or.

        You do, however, mention Daisy and her book on several occasions and it is that aspect of your blog that prompted my response. I also worry about setting the wrong tone, which I think the whole discussion around Hirsch and the myths is doing: I certainly wouldn’t like to go from one extreme to the other.

  8. An ‘anarchist’ curriculum might be entirely appropriate considering Hirsch’s quoting of Gramsci. Not everyone agrees with his analysis of what Gramsci intended…;)

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