Book Notes - Why Knowledge Matters

E.D. Hirsch is a self-described “hedgehog,” viewing the world through the lens of one big idea:

“[T]he achievement gap is chiefly a knowledge gap and a language gap. It can be greatly ameliorated by knowledge-based schooling.”

The inverse of Hirsch’s “big idea” is the skills-based approach to education that drives instruction in the vast majority of American schools. The Schools We Need & Why We Don’t Have Them” was my first introduction to the “knowledge vs. skills” debate. This book re-introduces Hirsch’s basic case and extends it based on new evidence from the world of cognitive science and the experience of French schools over the past several decades.

The Big Idea

Reading, critical thinking, and problem solving are not general skills that can be developed and applied to any context. Like most human skills, they are domain-specific, becoming stronger or weaker based on a person’s background knowledge of the topic. Hirsch recommends providing all students with a curriculum in the early grades that focuses on developing knowledge, not skills, to promote equity and achievement among all students.

Key Passages

I’ve heard many well-intentioned people, including educators, state that in the age of Google, it’s less important for students to learn a bunch of information they could just look up. Their belief is that we need to equip students with the critical thinking and problem solving skills to apply these tools to the problems they are tackling.

Hirsch provides a great deal of evidence to support the need focusing on building knowledge instead of generalizable skills, but the most powerful rebuttal to this line of thinking is his explanation of the “Matthew Effect” in education:

Reference works, inlcluding those available on the Internet, are immensely valuable to already knowledgeable people. Google is not an equal-opportunity fact-finder; it rewards those already in the know. Instead of being an agent of equality, Google rewards cognitive insiders. It consolidates educational inequity. Just as it takes money to make money, it takes knowledge to gain knowldege.

Throughout the book, Hirsch shows how the shift from a universal knowledge-based curriculum in France to a locally-determined and skills-focused approach in 1990 led to disastrous results:

The new localizing and indivudalizing of the schools had been proposed as a way of overcoming the reproduction of social stratification. But the educational results went the opposite way, intensifying inequalities. As the French data from 1987 to 2007 show, the new 1990 arrangements greatly intensified the social reproduction they were supposed to diminish. They systematically deprived poor children of the enabling knowledge that rich children had acquired from their home environments.

Hirsch’s proposed solution, replacing a individual-focused reading curriculum based on “leveled readers” with a knowledge-centered communal curriculum, is paradoxically a better way to encourage students to develop as individuals:

It must not be assumed that a different approach - whole-class instruction of real books and subject matters - means grey uniformity. On the contrary, real knowledge breeds real interest and individuality.

This principle is extended later in the book:

It’s in relation to the community that the individual develops. Only by mastering the shared knowledge and norms of the community can one diverge from those norms effectively.

The Core Knowledge curriculum, developed by Hirsch, is one approach to empowering students with a foundation of communal knowledge. He acknowledges that there can be some differentiation in early grade curricula based on local values while still building a strong foundation of knowledge:

Rival elementary curriculums may reflect rival values but all responsible ones will exhibit a great deal of overlap - out of a sense of obligation to the children who will need knowledge represented by those words in order to function well in American society.

Actionable Items

Hirsch makes a convincing case for the power of a content-rich, coherent, and cumulative curriculum to build a strong foundation of literacy. While research has shown the strong impact of a high-quality curriculum on student achievement, there’s a paucity of publicly available data on school curriculum. In some cases, districts may not even know which textbooks are being used in their classrooms.

One can agree or disagree with the case Hirsch makes, but we should all be able to agree that curricular choices play an important role in student achievement. It would make sense to make information about those choices more transparent so that:

  1. Educators would know which schools/districts are using similar/identical approaches, creating opportunities for highly relevant cross-school/district collaboration.
  2. Researchers could evaluate the relative strength/weakness of curriculum implemented in public schools.
  3. School boards and local school councils would have significantly more information to inform adoption/renewal of curriculum.

None of this is possible without transparent data on curriculum. Collecting information about such an important component of public education shouldn’t require a FOIA request.