A Core Knowledge Approach Is Worth the Effort

A Core Knowledge Approach Is Worth the Effort
American educator and academic literary critic E. D. Hirsch delivers a speech at the second Policy Exchange Education Annual Lecture on Education at Pimlico Academy, London, on Sept. 17, 2015. (Policy Exchange/ CC BY 2.0)
Michael Zwaagstra

In 1987, E. D. Hirsch, Jr., a highly respected English professor at the University of Virginia, burst upon the education scene. His bestselling book, “Cultural Literacy,” argued that schools were failing to provide students with the content knowledge (facts, dates, and concepts) they needed to be successful.

While some educators praised the book, a large number of education professors denounced it in very strong language. They argued that “Cultural Literacy” perpetuated long-discredited ideas about how children learn and said it placed far too much emphasis on irrelevant trivia.

The pushback caught Hirsch by surprise. After all, he was a political liberal who was passionate about reducing the gap between the rich and the poor. Making sure that all students, including those who live in poverty, acquire a minimum baseline of knowledge shouldn’t be controversial and Hirsch was surprised when so many educators took exception to his position.

However, it wasn’t only the substance of his argument that received pushback. Critics reacted most strongly to the book’s appendix which contained a list of approximately 5,000 names, dates, facts, and phrases that Hirsch thought all Americans should know.

By providing this list, Hirsch opened himself up to attack from anyone who didn’t like anything that appeared on the list. Some critics zeroed in on items that appeared unnecessarily trivial while others attacked the list because it left out items they thought should be included. Ironically, by providing a concrete example of core knowledge, Hirsch opened himself up to more attacks than if he had kept his arguments at a more general level, thus letting readers construct satisfactory lists in their own minds.

What Hirsch learned the hard way is that identifying what specific information belongs in a curriculum is easier said than done. This is why any curriculum worth its salt has multiple authors, dozens of reviewers, and hundreds of teachers who test it out in their classrooms. No curriculum guide in any subject area should be the work of only one person or of a handful of people, no matter how qualified they might be.

Recently, CBC published a leaked draft of K-4 curriculum proposals from some of the Alberta government’s curriculum advisers. Surprisingly, this document listed a significant number of names, events, facts, and dates that students, both rich and poor, should commit to memory.

Not surprisingly, one education professor after another slammed the draft document. They called it utter nonsense, developmentally inappropriate, and even suggested it was racist. Some accused the document of containing worthless trivia while others pointed out that some important topics were left out. In other words, most of the criticisms focused on the specific details in the proposal, just like what happened to Hirsch more than 30 years ago.

This is unfortunate for several reasons.

First, draft documents rarely look good, including those written by government consultants. Typically, these documents haven’t gone through any serious editing or reviewing process. No doubt the final version of the curriculum will look very different from any rough draft.

Second, by focusing on the details in the draft documents rather than on the broader core knowledge approach, critics are overlooking the solid link between content knowledge and reading comprehension. Reading is not just about decoding individual words. Being able to say the words takes beginning readers only halfway to understanding the content. In order to read effectively, readers must also understand what they are reading; they need to know a lot about the context.

If a reader knows nothing about the subject area of an article or book, that person will struggle to understand it. Likewise, if a beginning reader has considerable knowledge, that student will be able to understand the article or book much better.

For example, imagine reading an article about last night’s hockey game. Sentences such as “They tried to score on a power play but the other team effectively killed the penalty” may be second nature to children who play hockey or are fans of the game, but this sentence would be incredibly confusing to someone who knows nothing about hockey. Being able to read the words does not mean much if the reader cannot understand what the words mean in the specific context of an article or a book.

This point is, of course, true for both school children and adults.

Many research studies support this claim. In fact, studies have shown time and time again that background knowledge about the topic of an article is a better predictor of reading comprehension than students’ assessed reading levels or even their IQs. In fact, being knowledgeable about the topic of an article is more important than the complexity of the article itself.

The core knowledge approach to curriculum design is not about having students mindlessly memorize a collection of disjointed facts, trivia, as critics have said. Rather, it’s about ensuring that students acquire a baseline of knowledge that will enable them to read texts that rely on their familiarity with broader aspects of Canadian culture and history.

Earlier this year, E. D. Hirsch, who is 92 years old, released his latest, and probably his last book. “How to Educate a Citizen” summarizes the overwhelming evidence that supports his contention that students need to acquire substantial knowledge in school. It is a credit to Hirsch that there are hundreds of schools around the world that have adopted a core knowledge approach. Importantly, students in these schools regularly outperform the students in schools that follow a standard curriculum that deemphasizes the acquisition of content knowledge.

No longer is Hirsch an intellectual outlier—and that is a good thing for parents who want their children to be successful in school. His books have been endorsed by luminaries such as psychology professors Steven Pinker and Daniel Willingham. In addition, the former chancellor of New York City Public Schools, Joel Klein, provided a full-throated endorsement of the core knowledge approach. Clearly, core knowledge is gaining ground among experts, regardless of what some critics might think.

Education professors who dismiss core knowledge as a “discredited theory” reveal more about their own biases than anything else. Far from being discredited, core knowledge is gaining ground. Alberta Education and other ministries across the country need to realize they are on the right track if they persevere with embedding a core knowledge curriculum in their public schools. Students will, in fact, become much better educated.

Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher, a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, and author of A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning.