As a geographer, I find it interesting that it is politicians and thinkers on “the right” who appear to speak for knowledge in schools. In fact, geography tends to do well under Conservative governments. However, for me, the question of what has happened to the idea of education in recent years is much more important, a question that transcends party politics.
Although the 2010 White Paper The Importance of Teaching frequently mentions “core knowledge” as the substance of an enduring national curriculum, it does so in a way that is broadly based. It is the essential knowledge, concepts and understanding of school subjects, it says; teachers should know “how to convey knowledge effectively and how to unlock understanding” (para 4.8). However, it is clear how influential ED Hirsch has been in establishing “core knowledge” in the contemporary education lexicon. This is especially so now that Civitas has published its curriculum and its Years 1 and 2 books on “what your child needs to know”. It is no secret that Michael Gove, the education secretary, is a Hirsch fan.
I first came across the idea in a book shop in Boulder, Colorado – in 1992. A whole section was dedicated to the series of books on “what your child needs to know”. It seemed to be pandering to parental angst about the failure of schools to teach properly and their need to top up the experience to ensure educational advancement for their children. This appeared to be the main attraction of “core knowledge”: as a silver-bullet solution to a deep-seated deficit model of state education.
I read more about it. Hirsch’s 1987 book, Cultural Literacy, describes a beguiling idea, with more to it than at first meets the eye. It makes sense that children need access to their national culture. Schools should teach a curriculum that takes children beyond what they already know and experience in their day to day lives.
As a geographer, I welcome the “knowledge turn” in schools. The story of the national curriculum since its introduction has been one of slimming down and reduction. Even if children experience lessons called geography, there are question marks about what makes it geographical.
What has replaced rigorous curriculum thinking (addressing the question of what we shall teach children) is the pedagogic adventure, wrapped up in some notion of “thinking skills” or “learning to learn”. I think it a wonder that children tolerate this at all.
However, what fuels the current core knowledge drive from government – at least in my subject – are questions such as: “Do 14-year-olds know the countries of Africa?” And statements like: “Children at 11 years old should know the rivers of England”. This is a shame, because it is mis-reads what Hirsch is saying. Thus, when I was told the rivers statement, all I could think of in reply was: “what, all of them?” It was meant as a light joke – but my serious point was: how many of the rivers of England would constitute a pass mark? Even more seriously: what do we mean by “know”?
Hirsch is brazen – and interesting – about this. Superficial core knowledge will do. It is almost as if Thames or Trent or Severn are simply words, to be used, more or less appropriately. The less you can do this with reasonable proficiency the less culturally literate you are – and the less enabled you are to converse, think and develop deeper, conceptual knowledge about … flood plains, electricity generation, transport, sewage disposal and so on.
My subject has a massive amount of potential “core knowledge” in this sense – every place name, feature, or wind pattern on Earth. We don’t need to know it all, but we do need to know some. It is embarrassing how little of this knowledge many children and adults seem able to draw on.
But perhaps core knowledge in the Hirschian sense holds less promise than its supporters allow. Like many ideas in education it gets over-invested in; we end up relying too heavily on it. I worry in particular about those lists!
I hope we can accept that geography (along with all subjects, surely) has its extensive facts. I hope we can hold this thought alongside the notion that our main priority in schools is to develop intensive deep knowledge (you may prefer “understanding”). I hope we can see that one feeds the other and that we need to teach them together. Core knowledge only becomes a problem if we marginalise it or ignore it as somehow low level or beneath us.
Geographers know what I am saying. “We can always look it up in at atlas” will not do, not if we want autonomous thinkers who know when they are being tricked. Knowledge does not exist in atlases or the internet. Knowledge only exists in the head.
Education Secretary Michael Gove and Schools Minister Nick Gibb have finally begun to show their hand on the National Curriculum Review – at least for primary education. This sector has been well prepared for development by two substantial reports — the Rose Review, commissioned by the previous government, and the Cambridge Primary Review, funded by the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation. And in the past eighteen months a very large number of teachers, parents and other stakeholders have offered advice to the Department for Education. The report of an Expert Panel, of which I was a member, drew on this background in making its proposals. However, it is far from clear that these sources have influenced the proposals published yesterday.
The voice that has really counted from beginning to the end has been that of an American educator, ED Hirsch. In his early work, Hirsch developed the view that reading comprehension requires both decoding skills and background cultural knowledge. His influential 1987 book, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, appended long lists of facts and tapped a strong current of concern about US education. It was then extended to provide a Core Knowledge Sequence of year-on-year prescriptions for each subject pre-school to Grade 8 (age 13-14).
When I first met Nick Gibb, Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Sequence was open on his desk, heavily stickered with Post-It notes. Michael Gove’s instructions to Tim Oates, chair of the Expert Panel, were to trawl the curricula of the world’s high performing countries, to collect core knowledge, and put it in the right order. Then, he believed, we’d have a national curriculum to restore our economic fortunes and provide new opportunities for all.
Why Mary James, Dylan Wiliam and I were appointed to the Expert Panel remains something of a mystery, for we were hardly likely to accede to this crude design for curricular reform. For my own part, I would not deny that subject knowledge is important nor demur from sustained efforts to consider how it should be most appropriately represented in a programme of study. And of course, the idea sounds wonderful – yes, let’s sort out, once and for all, when spelling of particular words will be mastered, and the use of apostrophes, and the subjunctive, and so on. So this approach is likely to be very attractive to the public.
But the approach is fatally flawed without parallel consideration of the needs of learners. Primary teachers consider the overall experiences of each child, and try to provide a broad and balanced curriculum as is required by law. The skill and expertise of the teacher lies in building on each pupil’s existing understanding and capabilities, and in matching tasks to extend attainment. To do these things, they need scope to exercise professional judgement.
However, on the basis of the new National Curriculum proposals, they are to be faced by extremely detailed year-on-year specifications in mathematics, science and most of English. This is to be complemented by punitive inspection arrangements and tough new tests at 11. The new curriculum will preserve statutory breadth, we are told but, whilst teaching of a foreign language is to be added, provision for the arts, humanities and physical education is uncertain at this point. The constraining effects on the primary curriculum as a whole are likely to be profound and the preservation of breadth, balance and quality of experience will test even the most committed of teachers.
In an attempt to head off such constraints and preserve opportunities for teachers to exercise judgement, the Expert Panel recommended the organisation of programmes of study on a two year basis. But it is Hirsch’s very detailed year-on-year model that has prevailed. This was one of the main issues which caused the Expert Panel as a whole to withdraw from the development of programmes of study, leaving only Tim Oates to work with Ministers and the DfE teams. In the interests of transparency, DfE should identify those who have been particularly influential in preparing the draft programmes of study.
Certainly there are ameliorative provisions – for instance, the “freedoms” of the School Curriculum permit schools to vary the placement of content within each key stage, or to bring forward material to an earlier key stage. The latter may help teachers to satisfy the needs of high attainers, but there is no comparable provision for those who find learning particularly difficult. Further thinking is absolutely essential on how the needs of those who fall behind cumulatively, year on year, will be met.
Expectations should be high, but if targets are unreasonable they will simply generate a widespread sense of failure. It is essential therefore that the draft Programmes of Study are now subjected to scrutiny, moderation and refinement by teachers, researchers and others so that expectations are appropriately pitched. And the provisions for flexibility and for slower learners must be explored, tested and developed much further. Tidying up “knowledge” is a desk exercise, but in the real world of classrooms the range of pupil needs is enormous. These cannot be wished away.
Education must be seen as “the product of interaction between knowledge and individual development” (Expert Panel report, p11). Curriculum structures must enable teachers to use their expertise to manage this interaction beneficially. This is the real lesson of international evidence.