Hirsch and the importance of dialogue

In answer to @webofsubstance: The Pedagogy of Serfdom

We must remember, in The Knowledge Deficit, Hirsch is talking about primary education. He understands explicit instruction will be of only limited benefit after a short while – he suggested 40 minutes a day – and only for the teaching, learning and practice of specific ‘skills’ – the acquisition, application and development of reading and writing. We must presume he would also advocate the teaching of maths ‘skills’ in the same way, certainly the vast majority of primary school teachers would and do.

The reason for this is two-fold. First, he understands young children will not concentrate on the delivery of explicit information beyond a certain amount of time (this might have something to do with cognitive load, I’m not an expert and he doesn’t mention it) and so after 40 minutes or so, depending on the age of the children, it is time to move on. Second, Hirsch is very clear that learning code, that is reading and writing, is very different from learning language. He refers to Steven Pinker and describes language as an instinct, something which human minds have evolved to develop through use, not receive through instruction. Language must be taught differently he says, through its ‘implicit’ use. Pedagogically this means students must spend much of the rest of the day using and hearing language – developing vocabulary and use – through activities that promote language, including drama and dialogue. Hirsch is not an advocate of passive learning, he wants children speaking, as well as listening. As does Willingham. Otherwise children will not learn to use language in the sophisticated forms enjoyed by the privileged. There are no short cuts to this, education – as advocated by Hirsch – must be language rich, both the language of the teacher and the language of the students. People who argue Hirsch is arguing for less student talk and less active learning are misrepresenting his ideas.

I’ll also mention something about knowledge. I’m not going to argue that knowledge is important, you argue that eloquently and we are on the same side on this matter. However, both Hirsch and Willingham, as well as auguring that knowledge acquisition is a dialogic processes, also argue, that knowledge acquisition is best learnt through the use of story-telling. They maintain, stories are ancient methods of making meaning and forming connections between existing and new information. They create contexts that people can remember and, then use, to retrieve knowledge which would otherwise be disparate and unremarkable. We remember huge amounts of facts about the Beatles and the cultural world they inhabited because their lives, songs, and images create a rich web of memories for us. For younger people this web is much thinner and much weaker. If we try to hang new information on it, it is likely to break and the information will be lost. Hirsch and Willingham understand this, and they both advocate weaving meaningful and engaging contexts with children, to create stronger and more resilient webs – for them.

I read both The Knowledge Deficit and Why Don’t Children Like School on your recommendation, both are excellent and I learnt much. But, I think we must be careful not to cherry-pick their arguments and use only those bits that suit us. Pedagogically they are a challenge. Both books make a compelling argument for why our current system of schooling doesn’t work. They then go on to recommend new directions for reforming and improving practice. I believe it does them both a disservice if we only highlight those parts of their pedagogy we agree with and ignore those that are less appealing. The knowledge v skills debate it still wheezing along like an old dog and many are ready to put it out of its misery. I say, let’s give it a rest (a nice cozy basket to cuddle up in) and let’s have a new debate, one inspired by Hirsch and Willingham, one about student talk and why the development of language is built on dialogue – speaking and listening, questioning and answering – and not on the delivery of information from one place to another.


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  1. martin robinson December 9, 2013 at 10:49 am #

    I also like this one…

  2. Dan Willingham December 9, 2013 at 11:33 am #

    Tim, I agree, and it sounds to me like you largely agree with Harry. Maybe I missed something, but I didn’t hear in his piece a strong advocacy of didactic instruction–I thought he focused mostly on the function of cultural knowledge

    The Tait Coles piece attributes views to Hirsch that he has never held re: methods of instruction. In his books he focuses much more on “what” than “how.” The Core Knowledge Foundation has published an English Language Arts program for early grades, and it has, of course, kids doing speaking, writing, and listening. (For heaven’s sake, who would adopt a program that had first-graders sitting silently, listening to a teacher for 120 minutes?)

    • Tim Taylor December 9, 2013 at 3:14 pm #

      I’m not sure me and Harry agree on everything: but we do share some common ground. A ‘strong advocacy of didactic instruction’ is implied in all of his blogs, so I took it for granted.

      I agree Hirsch does focus more on the ‘what’ than the ‘how’. This is important since it is up to schools to interpret his ideas through realistic and effective practice. Both explicit and implicit study.

  3. Chris Chivers December 9, 2013 at 1:15 pm #

    Hi Tim,
    Having just read both Harry’s and your pieces, it would appear that there is significant potential overlap in your thinking, as it is being portrayed.

    I think any educational discussion is also likely to be diverted by the prevailing political interpretation of significant figures who paint a gloss to suit a purpose. This has been my experience over a 40 year career. Headline grabbing reduces complexities to a simple binary function, which further reduces to for or against.

    I am certainly for knowledge in context, to establish a place in broader thinking; it has to suit a function and is only certain when recovered from memory to be applied purposefully, often with the impact of further refinement through reflection. My greater concern in the current political climate is the seeming articulation, in speeches and in the new National Curriculum, of a reduction of use and application in favour of knowing. This dynamic shift may be further reduced by interpretations which progress the knowing at the expense of using and applying, in my opinion reducing a child’s ability to think beyond memory.

    In summary; if knowledge becomes the UK norm, and I am heartened by Daniel Willingham’s recount of the developments in the Core Curriculum, with knowledge in child friendly contexts, there will be a significant need within five years to review the curriculum yet again.

    Hopefully not too rambling!

    • Tim Taylor December 9, 2013 at 3:46 pm #

      You’re right our ‘overlap’ is on the importance of knowledge for thinking and learning. However, as you say, knowledge is not the same as just memorising facts and regurgitating them for a test. Context is everything, both in terms of whether the knowledge is worth retaining and whether it will be retained. Agency, by that I mean the students’ own relationship to learning, plays a vital role and teaching which ignores this will always be less effective. I’m not suggesting that the content is always negotiable or led exclusively by each individual student’s interests, but that there is a cross-weave of prescribed curriculum content, and emergent student input, that can create a meaningful and effective context for learning in the classroom. This is probably much easier to achieve in a primary setting, especially EYs and KS1, but should not be ignored in Secondary, especially KS3.

      I’m also worried about the new curriculum, but, much like phonics screening, I think it will whither away after M. Gove has left office. They feel like pet projects to me, rather than system shifts, and I’m not sure many people outside of a vocal few have much enthusiasm for them. He certainly does not seem to have convinced many in primary education. I suspect the national curriculum is breathing its last, and ten years from now people will look back on it as a not very successful experiment, barely missed.

      • Chris Chivers December 9, 2013 at 4:04 pm #

        The notion of agency, as you describe it, is a fundamental of all learning. We can put learning in front of a learner, but there is no guarantee of any level of retention. We can only aspire to make the learning sufficiently interesting that it will be retained for sufficient time to be logged in long term memory. I would imagine many adults hear but do not learn and there is loss if the known is not used over time- adults just say they are a little rusty.

        I would have wished that schools could have devised an appropriate curriculum for local needs based on a common framework of expectation, to engender a sense of ownership among teachers. Perhaps I am a little more pessimistic about the NC. It is one of the few things that politicians can appear to control. However the variable will be the number of schools becoming academised and whether they will be tested under the same regime.

  4. bt0558 December 9, 2013 at 1:51 pm #

    Really enjoyed reading this post and Harry’s post to which it was a reply.

    For me there are a few key issues here, the first being ….”We must remember, in The Knowledge Deficit, Hirsch is talking about primary education”.

    My understanding of Hirsch’s ideas are exactly that. He has suggested that removing the content from early education in favour “progressive” or “Romantic” methods will cause much later difficulties later.

    Hirsch relates his own experience with “progressive” methods which he enjoyed but reflects were ineffective. He talks of two projects in a year including performance in a musical. For me this is a long way from the position of a number of teacher bloggers for whom using yellow paper for handouts or using small group work is seen as progressive, trendy and potentially damaging for generations to come. I have a feeling that it is Hirsch’s disciples that often over egg the pudding and characature his position, sometimes to suit their own agenda.

    Having read some of Hirsch’s stuff I admit to agreeing with many of his ideas in principle and I can see where they come from. I find it more difficult to extend the idea that more knowledge is useful (a fact with which I am sure we would all agree) to a situation in which every student studying the Common Core might find themselves remembering the name “Bessie Smith” in relation to study of the Swing Era for instance. (have dreamed this one up as an illustration only).

    When the idea of a Common Core is joined to frequent high stakes multiple choice testing I think the time has come to worry. Having taught US curriculum based upon State Standards with such testing I have seen that there can be a tendency to focus upon rote learning of facts, we just have to make sure this doesn’t happen here perhaps.

    I agree with Chris that there seems to be a potential for overlap.

    Great post, thank you


  1. Hirsch and the importance of dialogue | Primary Blogging - December 9, 2013

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