The influence of ED Hirsch: A response

Written by: Michael Fordham | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

A recent piece in SecEd critiqued the influence of ED Hirsch on our politicians and our curriculum. Having read the arguments, teacher Michael Fordham offers his response, arguing that our curriculum is far from a Hirschian one

When it comes to the practical matter of putting together a curriculum for children to study, the perfect is often the enemy of the good. Writing a curriculum is always a compromise, and tough – impossible – decisions must be taken in working out how to spend the precious time we as teachers are granted as our principal resource.

In designing curricula, we are always conscious of conflicting demands, and we must with some frequency return to our aims, for it is these that must guide us in making our imperfect choices.

Great curriculum theorists make us think about the relationship between our aims and our choices. One of the most influential theorists in recent years has been ED Hirsch. His writings, recently popularised in England off the back of government advocacy, have caused a number of teachers and curriculum designers to ask searching questions about our aims and our choices.

In particular, the association Hirsch makes between a lack of wider cultural knowledge and poor reading comprehension has proven influential, particularly among those who have sought to break the dogged association between social class and academic attainment.

Unfortunately, the fact that Hirsch received support from Conservative politicians has tended to mean that his ideas are associated with a particular brand of politics. Greg Sloan’s recent critique of Hirsch’s influence on the curriculum in England is, I would argue, an example of this (Curriculum: The influence of ED Hirsch..., SecEd, May 2017:

In his piece, Mr Sloan elides the ideas of Hirsch alongside the concept of “powerful knowledge”. However, this concept has been advanced by sociologists who have been critical of some of Hirsch’s ideas, such as Michael Young.

Mr Sloan also ties the post-14 reforms, particularly the government emphasis on the EBacc accountability measure, to Hirsch’s curriculum theory. Yet, in many ways, the EBacc runs contrary to Hirsch’s curriculum thinking.

For one, Hirsch has little to say about teaching older children: his emphasis is very much on the younger years, especially primary school. Indeed, Hirsch’s curriculum theory could easily challenge the EBacc: the measure narrows the curriculum too far (e.g. by assuming that doing either history or geography is acceptable, rather than both); it does not incorporate the arts, knowledge of which Hirsch sees as crucial to his model of cultural literacy; it uses high-stakes testing (i.e. GCSEs) to drive curriculum, an approach Hirsch explicitly criticises for its detrimental affect on reading comprehension in the USA.

If the EBacc draws little from the ideas of Hirsch, then what about the national curriculum? If the 2014 national curriculum owes anything to Hirsch, other than a dose of ministerial rhetoric, then this is dwarfed by the scale of influence exercised by earlier iterations of the national curriculum.

The 2014 edition is remarkably similar to the 1995 national curriculum, and indeed it is far less detailed and much narrower in scope than the 1991 version.

As with previous iterations, the 2014 history curriculum owes a great deal to the principles of the Schools History Project, particularly in terms of its emphasis on thematic studies over time, the role of local history, and an emphasis on the importance of teaching the structure and methods of the discipline.

Those who sat around the table and contributed to the 2014 history curriculum included a number of people who have been active in the history education community in England over many years, and indeed it is noticeable that, when the final curriculum was published, it was broadly met with support from the community of history teachers.

Like every edition of the national curriculum (there have been iterations in 1991, 1995, 2000, 2008 and 2014), it is a document that attempts to compromise the desires and demands of different groups. The final product has very little specified detail, and differs significantly from the sorts of curricula that might derive from Hirsch’s “core knowledge” approach.

To call the national curriculum a work of Hirschian ideology reveals a deep misunderstanding of Hirsch and the workings of curriculum reform.

Mr Sloan’s article also tackles well-trodden ground concerning the relationship between the school curriculum and the power structures of western society. It is a common complaint that school curricula teach the knowledge of the powerful, which, the idea runs, helps to lock those without power into their disenfranchised place in the world. Children should, the argument concludes, be taught knowledge that is more “relevant” to their experiences, or which better reflects their own culture. I want to unpack this a little further.

Let us deal first with this question as to whether children should be taught, as Mr Sloan’s article said, “their own culture”.
I think this betrays a simplistic notion of culture: every child has access to a different range of experiences and is tied in to a variety of communities, each of which might have its own culture – a family, a housing estate, a religious group, a sports team – and all this before we get to the broader regional, national and international cultures of which everyone is part.

The complexity of an individual’s identity is such that no two people identify with an identical culture. Invariably, there will always be children whose cultures are not taught to them in schools, whether the curriculum is decided by a government, a local board or an individual teacher.

But there is a higher point here, and it concerns the purpose of schools. For too long we have conflated the terms “education” and “schooling”, and frequently attributed all that might reasonably be contained in the former to the latter. Yet schools are not solely responsible for education: education happens in a range of contexts, and it is provided by a wide variety of people.

Some of the people who provide education – family members, religious teachers, youth group leaders – are very much there to teach children about the culture into which they have been born. School, in contrast, is a rare opportunity to give children experiences that go beyond their particular circumstances.

As a teacher, I do not want to replicate the experiences children already have: I want to give them new experiences that take them beyond their current world view. To criticise schools for taking children beyond their culture is, in my view, to undermine one of the greatest responsibilities that we as teachers bear: to show children that there is a strange, puzzling and fascinating world that might lead them to think about their own lives in different ways.

And what should we be teaching children about this wider, puzzling world? The argument against Hirsch is that he is little better than a chest-thumping imperialist seeking to impose Western culture on children, regardless of their background. Yet a look at the UK-based core knowledge textbooks that Hirsch edited shows a rather more complex picture.

In the year 5 book I found the art of the Bamana people of Mali, the Yoruba people of west Africa and the Edo people of Nigeria; the music of Handel, Haydn and Mozart appear alongside Australian and Scottish folk, as well as Lennon and McCartney. A work of Oscar Wilde is followed by a folk tale from the Chuang people of Kwangsi province. In year 4 children encounter the Cyrillic alphabet, and the societies of the Baltic and the Balkans; the Irish legend of Finn MacCool is followed by the legend of The Hunting of the Great Bear from the Iroquis.

That is the kind of cultural breadth I can sign up to: I would be fairly happy for our government to state that primary school children should learn about the cultures of Nigeria, Japan and the Native Americans in the same way that Hirsch’s textbook series does. Prescribed diversity brings with it the associated problems of shoe-horning and tokenism, but a well-trained teacher knows how to weave complex narratives together without resorting to trite over-simplification.

The opposite approach is to hand the content of the curriculum over to children. The attraction of this idea has been at the heart of romantic approaches to education for many years, and there is something deceptively enticing about saying “we should let pupils choose to study what interests them”.

But this concerns me on a number of fronts. At the level of curiosity, we become curious about things we already know a little about. Babies are curious about sparkling lights, other humans and animals in a park, because these are the things in the realm of their experience. But babies are not curious about the orbits of planets, the structure of DNA or the causes of the Thirty Years War, because they know nothing of these.

As a teacher, it is my role to spark curiosity by introducing children to worlds they might otherwise have never known. I am not there to give children an opportunity to rehearse the things they already know well from their own experiences.

So I am not ashamed to hold a view on what I think it is important for children to learn, though I would add the proviso that I think it important I share with children the provisional – and in some cases arbitrary – decisions that we make in choosing what to teach them.

This is a matter of classroom culture: most history teachers are very comfortable saying to children “we have to learn about this, but there is so much more to find outside of school”. Indoctrination is not choosing the content for children to learn: indoctrination is when you convince those children that what you are teaching them is the only thing worth knowing.

For centuries, academic knowledge and the pursuit of truth were the preserve of the elite. Only those with independent means could spend the time needed in contemplation of the world and all the interesting things that prior generations have said about it. It was in this world that the association between knowledge and elite power was forged.

Yet we live in this world no longer. Contemporary society has its many problems: people suffer, often through no fault of their own, and we can always strive to improve ourselves, both as individuals and as a wider community. But, at least in the Western world, we have carved out the idea that all children should receive an education, funded by the state.

The 20th century took the knowledge that had been the preserve of the elites, and opened it up on a scale never before seen. The academic knowledge that was once the preserve of elites is now the entitlement of all.

Mr Sloan’s arguments have been made many times by countless individuals. However, I believe that these arguments are too simplistic in their formulation. Hirsch encourages us to think more carefully about the complex relationship between our aims and our content choices. And I, for one, am grateful for this.


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