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.