Cambridge first for godfather of knowledge

24 September 2015

A knowledge-based core curriculum increases equity and “dramatically and significantly” raises attainment in schools, a renowned thinker in education has told a conference.

Academic E.D. Hirsch told a large audience in Cambridge that the importance of knowledge was already accepted in Asian countries but that it was a challenge to convince some people in the United Kingdom and the United States of America who “basically hate the idea of a lockstep education”.

“How do we persuade people who are devoted to individuality to go where science and common sense take us?” he asked. “How do we avoid antagonising most of the population and offending our own preferences for heterogeneity?”

Dr Hirsch, who has been a leading figure in US education for more than 30 years, is credited with inspiring recent education reforms in the UK including an overhaul of the National Curriculum. Nick Gibb, the Schools Minister for England, has said about him: “No single writer has influenced my thinking on education more”. Interestingly however, Dr Hirsch has never spoken in the UK before.

During his talk, organised and sponsored by the exam group Cambridge Assessment, a department of the University, he traced the history of progressive thinking in education and the idea that children’s development “naturally unfolds” rather than being taught. It was a “deeply wrong theory that has been the source of enormous inequity”, he said.

“To ask [disadvantaged] children to ‘unfold naturally’ is an unwitting educational crime,” he added. “The ability to act and communicate effectively within the cultural commons is a requisite to the success of any citizen, with success defined minimally as the ability to earn a good living, participate in democratic self-government, and meet every citizen as an equal.” 

He told the audience, which included Amanda Spielman, the chair of Ofqual, the exams regulator in England, and Dame Rachel De Souza, chief executive of England’s Inspiration Trust academy school chain, that it was the duty of schools to impart knowledge and the best way of achieving that was with a grade-by-grade core curriculum. He called on universities such as Cambridge to help increase acceptance of a knowledge-based curriculum, particularly because unlike elected representatives they avoided accusations of political bias.

His talk was followed by a series of questions and comments from an interested audience. Before his appearance in Cambridge, Dr Hirsch had spoken at a London event hosted by the think tank Policy Exchange, sponsored by Cambridge Assessment, and he is speaking at an Inspiration Trust school in Norwich, England, this evening. The events have proved popular on social media, with the London talk one of the top conversation topics on Twitter.

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