Hirsch: Making education great again?

If you read one thing today, let it be this incendiary piece from The Wall Street Journal. Provocatively named “Bad Teaching is Tearing America Apart,” the piece profiles one of my personal education heroes, E.D. Hirsch, who has spent decades explaining how flawed educational trends and theories are failing our students and hindering their achievement.

Folks who are keen to learn more about Hirsch’s ideas on effective teaching and learning systems would be wise to go straight to the source, as any summary I could offer here would fail to capture his sense of nuance and insight. But put simply, Hirsch, who has been called the “most important education reformer of the past half-century,” offers a sensible (and somehow controversial) idea for improving the quality of American education: stop indulging in fads and feel-good pedagogy. Instead, make education about, you know, actual knowledge again.

Students need specific, sequence-driven, content-rich knowledge, Hirsch argues. From the WSJ profile:

The current fashion is for teachers to be a “guide on the side, instead of a sage on the stage,” he says, quoting the latest pedagogical slogan, which means that teachers aren’t supposed to lecture students but to “facilitate” learning by nudging students to follow their own curiosity. Everything Mr. Hirsch knows about how children learn tells him that’s the wrong approach. “If you want equity in education, as well as excellence, you have to have whole-class instruction,” in which a teacher directly communicates information using a prescribed sequential curriculum.

But whole-class, explicit teaching has not just been seen at scale in American schools for quite some time. Direct Instruction, one such type of explicit teaching, has been called the Rodney Dangerfield of instruction. Curriculum has become increasingly skills-based, in which skills like “finding the main idea” and “determining the author’s purpose” dominate actual engagement with content-rich texts. Gone are the days where classroom seats face forward and book reports demand students’ concentration. Instead, small groups, flexible seating, and “just Googling it” dominate classrooms of the day. 

The pandemic has changed nearly everything about education, but this is one change I would gladly welcome. 

As Hirsch has spent his career arguing, students still need access to content-rich, knowledge-rich texts. Despite the 21st Century need to make students “think like scientists” and “think like historians,” it’s time we acknowledge once again that before students can develop those critical thinking skills, they have to actually know some things about science and history first. Skills don’t just occur in a vacuum.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: You can have knowledge without skill, but you can’t have skill without knowledge. Hirsch understood that. It’s time that more of us in the classroom do, too.

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