Before You Declare ED Hirsch's 'Core Knowledge' As Evil, Know This:

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.

Who Are You and What Are You Doing Here?

Just read the marvellous 2011 essay from Mark Edmundson “Who Are You and What Are You Doing Here?” about the purpose of education, especially a degree. There are many wonderful parts, in particular this on why we should read a variety of writers:

The reason to read Blake and Dickinson and Freud and Dickens is not to become more cultivated, or more articulate, or to be someone who, at a cocktail party, is never embarrassed (or who can embarrass others). The best reason to read them is to see if they may know you better than you know yourself. You may find your own suppressed and rejected thoughts flowing back to you with an “alienated majesty.” Reading the great writers, you may have the experience that Longinus associated with the sublime: you feel that you have actually created the text yourself. For somehow your predecessors are more than yourself.

Note that Freud is in that list. Books that lift your heart might not always be the fiction ones. They might not always be the most “classic”, what matters is that they lift you up. It’s so easy to become bogged down in the idea that reading should be for other people – to impress or blend with them – but reading is really about much more than that.
Edmundson also reflects how to be a great learner:

You’ll be the one who pesters his teachers. You’ll ask your history teacher about whether there is a design to our history, whether we’re progressing or declining, or whether, in the words of a fine recent play, The History Boys, history’s “just one f***ing thing after another.” You’ll be the one who challenges your biology teacher about the intellectual conflict between evolution and creationist thinking. You’ll not only question the statistics teacher about what numbers can explain but what they can’t.

And he explains why his father got mad when teenaged-Edmundson said he would likely study law for his degree because  lawyers “make pretty good money, right?”:

My father detonated. (That was not uncommon. My father detonated a lot.) He told me that I was going to go to college only once, and that while I was there I had better study what I wanted. He said that when rich kids went to school, they majored in subjects that interested them, and that my younger brother Philip and I were as good as any rich kids. (We were rich kids minus the money.) Wasn’t I interested in literature? I confessed that I was. Then I had better study literature, unless I had inside information to the effect that reincarnation wasn’t just hype, and I’d be able to attend college thirty or forty times.

There is so much more wisdom in this piece, but I’ll leave it for you to explore and figure out which are the bits that speak back to you the things you’ve always thought but have never been able to say.

What do we mean by 'relevance'?

Also cross-posted at LKMCo
Relevance has become a bit of a ‘sneer’ term of late. But what do people mean by it? There seem to be two meanings. One, is when you teach a whole topic simply because you think students will enjoy it or it fits their current preoccupations. That is not relevance. That is ‘entertainment’. If students are merely repeating information they already have, or are  clearly not pushing/revising the boundaries of their skills, knowledge or comfort – then you’re right to call it out.
But the second way of sneering about ‘relevance’ is when people say it is ridiculous to make a difficult concept more relevant by starting from ideas that a student already know as a ‘way in’ or linking learning beyond the classroom.   That seems ludicrous.  A story from my hero, Seymour Sarason, explains why this sort of ‘relevance’ is vital:
“Let me tell you about me and my first course in algebra. I was a good student and not only in algebra. Algebra came easily to me. It was also very uninterestingand downright boring. I never understood and no one ever bothered to explain why we had to learn algebra. Well, one day I screwed up enough courage to ask our teacher why we had to learn algebra. When I asked that question, the rest of the class broke out in applause. The teacher became visibly upset. He quieted us down and said that he wanted to finish the lessons of the day that tomorrow he would try to and answer the question. The next day he started the class by saying; “I’m going to present you with two choices, and you have to decide which of the two you will choose. Keep your choice to yourself. The first is that on the first day of next month I will give each of you $1 million. The second is that on the first day of next month I will give each of you a penny, on the second day I will double it, that will get doubled on the third day, and a doubling will go on each subsequent day of the month. Think about it for a few moments and make your choice.” Everyone opted for the million dollars and, of course, we were shortchanging ourselves. He then went on to demonstrate the law of compound interest and the formula for it. To say that we were astounded is to put it mildly. All of us were interested in money, and I can honestly say that was a peak day in my school years. What I thought I knew was wrong. What I needed to know I now wanted to know, and the more the better. I shall ever be grateful to that teacher at how he made formula important and interesting on that day.
He was a superb teacher and that is where I plan on starting: getting more teachers like the one I had in algebra.
This sort of  relevance is really really important. Relevance sparks interest. A great teacher can make anything relevant. I would argue teachers need to make it relevant if every single kid in a class is going to learn (it’s a modern miracle to find 30 constantly internally motivated teenagers). But relevance is not synonymous with ‘making it easy’ – which is how it seems to be being used all of a sudden. Maybe that’s because some people shirking the difficulties of teaching like to use relevance as an excuse (“it’s not relevant to these kids”).  But we can’t let the inaccurate use of a word by a few people become a global thing by mimicking them. All knowledge can be considered relevant to everyone, a teacher’s jobs is finding the key to helping the student realise that too.

The Two Battlelines of Teaching: Which One Are You On?

So I’ve finished re-reading Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind and I still cannot recommend it enough. He writes in a style similar to Malcolm Gladwell and masterfully curates easy-read summaries of psychological and political research.
Thankfully Haidt also summarises the main principles of his book. They are:

  1. Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second  – i.e. we decided what we think by gut feel and then we cast about to find the reasons and evidence to support it
  2. There’s more to morality than harm and fairness – Left-wingers tend to think only in terms of these two things, right-wingers tend also to add in ‘loyalty, authority and sanctity’.
  3. Morality binds and blinds – We like people who think like us and we stick to them. This is not necessarily a good thing as we then develop huge blind spots. Whether the Left wants to admit it or not there is loyalty and authority can be beneficial – we probably all just need to realise that.

These three ideas struck me hard given many conversations of late about curriculum and classroom behaviour. Both conform beautifully to Haidt’s principles:
Curriculum – ‘Traditionalists’ tend to talk about the ‘sanctity’ of the classics and a belief that a single traditional core will bind the nation together. Haidt argues such beliefs are typically held by people who see humans as naturally tending towards evil unless steered away. On the other hand ‘Progressives’ worry less about this authority, tradition and sanctity and instead concentrate on ‘fairness’, particularly the ‘fairness’ of teaching a canon – i.e. whose voice will it reflect, what messages will it send – or they worry about the ‘harm’ to teacher autonomy or student identity if the only things read reflect a ‘dominant patriarchal’ voice.
Behaviour – Again, traditionalists prefer a deference for authority, a strict approach without deviation for any kind of behaviour they would not agree with and demand absolute loyalty from students (i.e. “it doesn’t matter that you think the lesson is boring, you must behave anyway if you wish to get on”). Progressives, however, tend to promote ideas of ‘fairness’ rather than a hardline equitable approach – e.g. should a student who is undergoing traumatic issues at home be reprimanded severely if misbehaving when compared to a student who is having expectations positively modeled in a firm and loving home environment?
The fear then is that having decided which principles we feel matter most all we do next is cast about finding evidence to shore up our own side. If that happens then as @oldandrewuk has often said, all we have is a never -ending educational battleground from which any government, institution, policy is only going to work for the purpose of supporting its own inbuilt biases.

An EBacc/ABacc English Curiosity

A morning Twitter discussion highlighted this curiosity:
In order to count in the EBacc statistics a student needs to get an English Language GCSE or an English (combined) GCSE. English Literature, on its own, can’t count.
In order to count in the ABacc statistics a student must get three of the Russell Group ‘facilitating subjects’. English Literature is one. English Language is not. (see p.15)
Huh.
This means that we think at 16 it is most important that children study Language but at 18 we suddenly value Literature. Surely this can’t be right?
Given also that a common defence of the EBacc is that its subjects reflect the ‘facilitating subjects’ of the Russell Group, I’m confused. Why is English Language in the EBacc over English Literature if Literature is the one the Russell Group believe keeps your options open most widely, and also is the one that counts towards a school’s “ABacc measure”.
Any ideas?
[PS – big thanks to @miconm and @danielhugill for prompting me to check this]

What Hating Alexis De Tocqueville Taught Me About Learning

I wrote a blog for LKMCo today about the work of ED Hirsch and its current use in the UK debate about National Curriculum.  One of Hirsch’s principles is that there is a ‘correct order’ in which ideas should be taught so that children best understand them.  It’s a noble idea and for the purpose of creating a curriculum I can see why it is rational. Nevertheless, I am minded of something I once heard a US academic say.  His story went as so:

For ten years my university has been trying to get me to use Powerpoint. They sent me on courses, would buy me books, and each time I would pay attention – nod when required – and then would promptly forget everything I knew within a few days.
Last week I had to give a presentation to the US Department for Education. They required Powerpoint; no arguments, get your powerpoint done. Two days before it was due I dragged my 10 year old daughter out of her bedroom and made her show me how it was done. Two hours later I was happily (if still somewhat slowly) using the thing and from then I could use it as and when required.

He told the story to point out that sometimes what is missing in education is not information.  No end of effort was put into pumping Powerpoint instructions into his mind.  What was missing was a reason to understand and remember those instructions.
I empathise because today I am finalising some papers for a US Education History course and I am suddenly moved to read Tocqueville’s work. I hated learning Tocqueville at university. Couldn’t make it head nor tails of it; hated it. But then I didn’t know anything about the creation of America, and I wasn’t particularly interested in the creation of America, and I didn’t appear to have any reason to be interested beyond the fact that someone was telling me I had to be. So, like the story above, I grinned, bore it, read what I read, vaguely made things up in discussions and promptly forgot about it.
Then suddenly – out of nowhere today – he comes up, and I get what they are saying, and I finally think: “Ooh – interesting. I need to read more Tocqueville”. And I open a Wikipedia page. And I checkout the library roll call to see where I can get his book from. And all of a sudden – eleven years after our first introduction – I finally want to learn all about him.
Hirsch can write a big list of what everyone should know and he can dictate when they will be told it but he can’t decide when they’ll be interested and when they’ll actually care enough to learn about it. That’s a different calculation altogether.

Teaching Winston Churchill

I note the Daily Mail has led on the story of the new National Curriculum with a triumphant gloat that Churchill is back on the agenda.
I am also chuffed that Churchill is back, but not for the same reasons as the Daily Mail. If the National Curriculum is really as ‘forward looking’ as is suggested in the article then I can only assume that this means we are no longer just going to get a picture of Churchill as the glorious war-time leader who looks like this:

But maybe we will also get to see representations of his mental illness, like this:

After all, Churchill was not ashamed of his bipolar disorder which he wrote and spoke about with reasonable regularity, and nor should he be. Furthermore many historians have now argued that it contributed a great deal to both his greatness and – at times – his moments of awfulness.  And I hope those moments of awfulness are also included in this new ‘history of Britain’. For if children are to be ‘taught of Churchill’ it should be done wholly and properly. So let us hope that alongside the triumph of WWII they are also taught of Churchill’s part in the Gallipoli Campaign, his disasterous turn as Chancellor of the Exchequer, and his views on workers during the General Strike, and then also that he went on to win a Nobel Prize for Literature – demonstrating that leading armies is not the only way to be famous or successful.
If these aspects of his character are not given equal credence, and we allow the National Curriculum to uncritically idolise someone with such a complex potted history – & who could teach so much that will overturn misperceptions of mental illness – then the new National Curriculum is being no less neglectful than the last.  It is rare that I agree with the Daily Mail, but on this one we are united, just as long as their picture of Winston Churchill is in agreement with mine.

A Letter To Future Education Ministers: Could Curriculum Review Look Like This?

Dear Future Education Ministers,
Here’s an idea.  Why not set up a committee called “The Curriculum Review Panel” [I know it sounds familiar but bear with me].  It would re-write sections of the curriculum each year, or in rolling blocks. For example, for 2 years they could do the curriculum for 9-11 year olds. Then 2 years on one for 12-14 year olds. Once we get to 16 then you can start again at the beginning.
This would mean the curriculum is constantly open to new ideas but each year groups’ curriculum is only updated once every 10 years or so. That might seem a long time but it allows teachers to become experienced in the knowledge they are expected to impart and it’s also the length of time Hong Kong uses to consider its curriculum.  HK is a country that you refer to a lot as a “high performing education system” so I’m sure it will be okay.
This Panel would have 5 members – including a Chair.  When a new Government is appointed they are allowed to select ‘3 new members’ (and boot off 3) but must retain 2 members appointed by the previous Government. If you win another Parliament then you can change 3 members again – meaning you would then have a board fully selected by you (after all, you’re clearly doing an okay job).  It would mean that for the first Parliament at least you still had people who remembered what has happened previously and can provide context. Sure, it might be difficult for everyone to work together but avoiding the damage of curriculum shock in schools is a good idea and there are tricks below to help prevent things getting too nasty.
When curriculum are published (draft or otherwise) they would be collectively presented but each ‘panel expert’ is allowed to publish their own narrative about the findings, how it was decided and whether they think it is justifiable. These documents should be rigorously academic, part of the experts published corpus of work and form part of the public consultation on the curriculum. This will help the public know what the opinions are of each expert and judge how in line it is with their own beliefs, their party, etc. However, in terms of curriculum content a ‘majority rule’ is sufficient for a decision in the curriculum – i.e. if 3/5 feel a certain approach is best, this is the one included.  Though some experts may be unhappy about what is included, they must accept that their view was the minority and must be satisfied that they have been able to put their concerns into the public arena through their published narrative but that democratic sway was not in their favour on this occasion.
A tricky question now: What would stop the current Government making things so unbearable that the experts from the previous administration decide to leave the panel? And if they do, who will replace them?  It’s surely not a good idea that in the first administration all 5 are selected by the current government.  I therefore wonder if it might be possible to have a ‘List system’ whereby the previous administration publishes a ‘list’ of preferred candidates such that if an expert decides to leave then they will be replaced by the next person on the list.  In fact, the ‘list system’ could be something that all parties – in advance of a General Election – declare for scrutiny. That is, each party would have to name, say, 20 individuals in rank-order preference that would be asked to the Panel if a space was available. These 20 could also be the ‘ad-hoc’ list and could be called on for advice on various matters – maybe subject specialisms, etc – and this advice would also be publishable. In doing so this would help people know before voting in the General Election who is likely to be on the curriculum board and what values they hold.
You also might ask: What is to stop a Government putting any old random on their Expert list?  Nothing. But they can do that now. Anyone can advise on National Curriculum.  However, if the list system were to go ahead people would know in advance who they were getting and if people felt it important for certain people to be on the list (perhaps teachers) or certain people to be off the list (perhaps people with a commercial interest) then noise could be made to that effect which might encourage political parties to carefully consider their list choices.
As a politician this change would, of course, make me jumpy.  What if they say something I don’t like and I have to go with it?  Well, dear politician – YOU get to pick them. If YOU pick the experts then I suggest that YOU should trust their outcome.  Aha, thinks the politician, so if I just pick people who I know are sympathetic to my view then I can get the answers I want?  Perhaps. But remember, each person will need to make their own statement justifying their professional opinion about the curriculum. Their professional (possibly academic) reputation is on the line. It may be more tricky to ‘guide’ them than you think – and this is a very good thing.  After all, you are selecting them to be your ‘expert’ not your lacky.
The benefit in schools is that it would mean a more gradual change of curriculum rather than the current half-a-decade “all out” which is not only confusing for teachers and pupils, but is also *expensive* and so far has meant only incremental improvements. And sure, there would be in-fighting. Yes, it would still get tumultuous and political. That’s the nature of being involved in education. But perhaps these curriculum decisions might also be transparent, considered and done on the basis of rigorous argument – none of which would hurt anyone.
Please feel free to take this idea and run with it,
Laura (Miss) Mc