19 Sep 2015

The Hirsch effect

How is it that an 87 year old retired professor from the University of Virginia has had such an influence on the English curriculum? E D Hirsch spoke at the Policy Exchange annual lecture. A series of articles on knowledge and curriculum has been published by the Policy Exchange to contine the conversation. So what are his ideas and how have they had such an impact on education policies? To summarise in brief:

While teaching at the University of Virginia he was carrying out research on reading with young people at local community colleges. He discovered that those from poorer backgrounds struggled to read a passage on the surrender of General Robert E Lee near their home town of Richmond. He realised they lacked the necessary background knowledge of the American Civil War.

'Cultural Literacy: what every American needs to know', published in 1984 was the result of this insight.  Hirsch argued that all American children needed a body of 'core knowledge' which would allow them to function as fully rounded citizens – and that, as some were not absorbing this knowledge at home, they needed to be taught it at school. He  added an appendix, with long lists of facts, words and phrases whose significance every US child should know. This was picked up by Michael Gove and Nick Gibb and has had a big impact on the new national curriculum - underpinned by 'what children should know'. In his lecture, he said that what he advocated then would be out of date now. He went on to say that any core knowledge list should not be done by politicians - better to leave it to universities. And he didn't underestimate the complexities of agreeing what such a canon should comprise.

However his work is much broader and nuanced than advocating a gradgrindian approach to teaching facts. Both in his work and as he was speaking at the Policy Exchange Lecture, he emphasised that knowledge  serves comprehension. In an elegant article 'Reading Comprehension Requires Knowledge—of Words and the World' he analyses what he believes are the reasons for the apparent decline in reading standards amongst 9 and 10 year olds from poorer backgrounds in America. He argues that the relative poverty of rich language for many children in low income gamilies is compounded over time.

While it a statement of the obvious that vocabulary is important for comprehension, Hirsch argues that a small early advantage in vocabulary acquisition grows into a much bigger one unless we intervene very intelligently to help the disadvantaged student learn words at an accelerated rate. It appears that the gap in vocabulary widens and this is how Hirsch accounts for it: if adequate reading comprehension depends on a child already knowing between 90 and 95 percent of the words in a text, it follows that knowing that percentage of words allows the reader to get the main thrust of what is being said and therefore to guess correctly what the unfamiliar words probably mean.

'This means that the communications students read or hear hold very different knowledge and word-acquisition possibilities for advantaged and disadvantaged students. Those who know 90 percent of the words in a text will understand its meaning and, because they understand, they will also begin to learn the other 10 percent of the words. Those who do not know 90 percent of the words, and therefore do not comprehend the passage, will now be even further behind on both fronts: They missed the opportunity to learn the content of the text and to learn more words.'

From this he argues that domain knowledge is important because it gives meaning to otherwise confusing sentences. He gives the example of someone hearing Einstein lecture and who came out saying: 'Well I understood all the words, I just didn't understand what they meant.' He goes on to argue that irony, metaphor and other literary devices need background information in order to make sense of them. The Core Knowldge Curriculum was the result of this thinking about the essential content of a sensible curricuum.

What has been lost in the focus on core knowledge is Hirsch's advocay of oral proficiency. Oral comprehension typically places an upper limit on reading comprehension; if you don’t recognize and understand the word when you hear it, you also won’t be able to comprehend it when reading. This tells us something very important: oral comprehension generally needs to be developed in our youngest students if we want them to be good readers. Most vocabulary growth results incidentally, from massive immersion in the world of language and knowledge. It has long been known that the growth of word knowledge is slow and incremental, requiring multiple exposures to words. One doesn’t just learn a word’s meaning and then have the word. He refers to the work of Isabel Beck's work 'Taking Delight in Words' which has some excellent strategies for extending children's vocabulary.

So what I took from Hirsch's lecture is that a high quality, language rich curriculum framed around the big knowledge is at the heart of a sensible education offer. This is a bigger vision than a list of stuff to know...


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