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This book has become an instant classic and I can understand why. Hirsch makes some clear claims about the importance of a knowledge rich curriculum. The case study of France is sobering, still other literature does soften a bit this case.
En France dans l'Éducation Nationale nous subissons des réformes successives de plus en plus dures depuis trente ans. Nous disposons de moins en moins de liberté pédagogique et de moins en moins de contenu, et le niveau des élèves est en chute libre, particulièrement sur les dix dernières années. Cet ouvrage donne (dans un anglais très clair et très compréhensible) une explication circonstanciée du désastre, de ses venants et aboutissants, la France étant présentée comme objet d'étude démontrant l'échec des méthodes globales. Je le recommande donc sa lecture à tous, à mes collègues professeurs, à nos inspecteurs et bien sûr aux parents d'élèves.
Le bon titre de cet ouvrage se retrouve dans le contenu. Il s'agit d'une sorte de bilan des longues activités du professeur Hirsch, qui est un de ceux qui a le mieux analysé les dérives des méthodes d'enseignements, celles que l'on dit "centrées sur l'apprenant, et dont on peut constater la nocivité à travers leur histoire américaine, ancienne. Le présent ouvrage a la particularité d'aborder la situation de la France, qui, comme d'habitude, a singé servilement ce qui dysfonctionne aux Etats-Unis.
E D Hirsch has written a number of books on 'why knowledge matters'. This, however, is the most recent and the most developed and incorporates most of the things he has said in previous books such as 'Cultural Literacy'. It is an extremely important book because it states clearly and powerfully the case against the dominant current 'group think' of Western education which assumes that education should be 'child-centred', based on 'discovery and on children 'constructing' their own meaning via projects and group work, and focused on skills, rather than, as Hirsch argues, on the acquisition of knowledge.
Hirsch also argues for the transmission of cultural knowledge specific to the nations in which the education is taking place. He therefore recommends a curricular programme designed to introduce children to what 'every American (or English) child needs to know'. He is an advocate of the idea of a core curriculum common to all national schools and, by implication in England, a national curriculum that doesn't mince words about the cultural knowledge that children in English schools need to acquire through their schooling. He does not only recommend this kind of education. He also shows what goes badly wrong when knowledge is jettisoned, illustrating this with powerful case studies from France and the USA.
Hirsch has sometimes been treated like a 'pariah' (his own words) because of these views, but he is finally coming into his own, both in England, where his influence is apparent in the recently revised national curriculum, and in the USA via the Common Core State Standards, which President Trump unfortunately appears neither to understand nor to like.
This is a book that needs to be read by anyone, in any Western country, charged with educational decision-making.
Why Knowledge Matters is simply the best book on the subject of education I have ever read. It’s also the most important.
So what qualifications do I have to say that? I have master’s degrees in Educational Administration and in a scientific field. Between my credentials and my education degree, I have the equivalent of three years of full time postgraduate study in education. And if it matters, I’ve been teaching for 18 years.
In Why Knowledge Matters, E.D. Hirsch completely breaks with the prevailing orthodoxy on the subject of learning. The current orthodoxy states that the acquisition of knowledge is virtually unimportant in a child’s education. What’s important is that a child learns “critical thinking” or “problem solving” or “reading comprehension skills.” So instead of teaching my students the scientific knowledge I’ve acquired over years of study, research and teaching...I’m supposed to teach them an amorphous and impossible to measure set of skills. Actually, I’m not even supposed to teach. I’m supposed to facilitate learning by teaching them skills that are “universal” and “not specific” to science. Seriously…I’m not supposed to teach.
But here’s what Professor Hirsh makes absolutely clear. There is no such thing as “reading comprehension skills” or “critical thinking skills” or non-domain specific “problem solving skills." If I gave a passage from an advanced mechanical engineering textbook to an average liberal arts major and told them to read and comprehend it, they would fail. Why? Because they lack the background knowledge needed to make sense of the material in the engineering text. But if I first taught them the needed vocabulary and scientific principles, they then could make sense of it. Because American schools don’t focus on knowledge, we aren’t giving our students the tools they need to comprehend much of what they read. Many are just like that liberal arts student trying to make sense of an engineering text.
The same goes for problem solving. Take fixing-a-broken-transmission as an example of a problem that needs to be solved. You can drill a student in “problem solving” skills until the next ice age, but it won’t add one bit of information on how transmissions work to their brain. And without that critical knowledge, a transmission is nothing more than a piece of metal that magically makes the car’s wheels move. You cannot solve a problem that you don’t understand, and you can’t understand it without knowledge. And that knowledge needs to be taught. But under the dominant orthodoxy of education, knowledge is relegated to being “trivia” or “factoids.” Nothing worth filling a child’s head with.
Worst of all, our current obsession with an amorphous and impossible to measure set of skills is making education boring. Explain to a child how a volcano works and you see his or her eyes light up. I’ve had parents tell me that their child couldn’t wait to tell them how hurricanes form or why earthquakes happen after learning it in my class. I would hazard that there’s never been a student in the world who was exited to go home and tell his parents how to annotate and summarize an article.
We all know knowledge matters. Or do we? It's clear that you can't really function in the world--much less take part in informed public discussion--unless you have background knowledge, a repertoire of working material, and a grasp of the problem at hand. But education fads and reforms have been pulling away from knowledge and toward something vague and elusive. In this book, E.D. Hirsch examines the situation, its sources, and its consequences. If you have often heard phrases like "Students don't need to learn facts; they can just look them up," "Schools should be teaching skills and strategies, not content," or "Students should learn according to their interests, motivation, and developmental stage," if you have sensed something wrong with these assertions but wished for more insight and information, this is the book to read.
Why Knowledge Matters refines and updates the arguments of some of Hirsch's earlier work--with references to cognitive science, analyses of the Common Core State Standards and other recent developments, and reflections on the curricular "revolution" in France. Hirsch makes his points with wisdom and wit, avoiding politicization and dogma while stressing the communal purposes of education. (It is this commonality, he notes, that allows students to form their own opinions and tastes through interchange with each other.) The book abounds with helpful references--studies, histories, first-hand accounts, literary works, and much more.
It has to be said again and again, and Hirsch says it here: privileged children gain much of their broad cultural knowledge outside of school; poor children depend largely on school for such knowledge. So school cannot be a free-for-all, where some people learn things and others do not. The instruction has to be deliberate and substantial. (I would add that such instruction can benefit privileged/advanced students as well; they have opportunities to structure their learning, view topics from new perspectives, and challenge themselves to new levels.)
If you are a member of the "choir"--that is, if you already support the idea of strong curriculum, then the book can take your thinking further. I especially enjoyed the parts with which I slightly disagreed; they challenged me to refine my views. No going to sleep at my post here.
I recommend this book for teachers, principals, superintendents, parents, students, journalists, and anyone else interested in education as a public good.