Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Nation at Risk (1) ED Hirsch

Earlier, I collected some materials written on the occasion of the 25th Anniversary "A Nation at Risk." That event has led the education community and education pundits to write retrospectives on the course of public education over those 25 years. So, I thought that I would begin a blog-strand on some of the perspectives on that seminal work. As always, when I provide access to resources, my goal is to share different perspectives: I don't believe in limiting ones thinking to the people with whom one agrees.

My first blog entry comes from a recent article in Education Week, by E.D. Hirsch, one of American's leading educational thinkers. E.D. Hirsch is one of our most stimulating writers on the topic of school reform. I recommend especially his The Schools We Need and Why We Don't have Them. In his article in Education Week, Hirsch writes:
In American educational history, A Nation at Risk is significant as a very dramatic official recognition in the 1980s that our schools were declining in effectiveness not only in relation to schools of other nations, but also in relation to our own results in earlier decades. In the 25 years since the report was issued, energetic reform efforts have been put forth, to small overall effect. The best single gauge of overall national school effectiveness—the National Assessment of Educational Progress reading test of 12th graders––has remained flat, and has even declined slightly. This persistent lack of significant improvement is owing to the unwavering persistence of the very ideas that caused the decline in the first place—the repudiation of a definite academic curriculum in the early grades by the child-centered movement of the early 20th century. Given the continued content vagueness of state standards in early grades, especially in language arts, that underlying condition has not much changed. There is still no definite, coherent academic curriculum in the early grades. That is the principal source of the low academic achievement of our high school students.
There is much to admire in E.D. Hirsch's point of view. He writes from the point of view of a literate, learned, social scientist. His recommendations on enriching the core elementary curriculum is stimulating and often hits the mark. Hirsch is the leading critic of the over reliance on teaching critical thinking, without the core knowledge base that represents the language and knowledge base with which, and about which, we think critically. You cannot think if you do not know, is a simplistic paraphrasing of Hirsch's approach.

Some people have gone too far with Hirsch's point of view, and have argued that schools should avoid critical thinking altogether. They would argue that critical thinking is no part of education. But that is not Hirsch's message at all, for he is a thinker. Hirsch is criticizing the people who believe that it is possible to learn history without knowing historical facts, mathematics without knowing arithmetic fundamentals, or science without knowing basic science facts.

Hirsch writes;
Decades later, elementary schools continue to follow the advice of the anti-curriculum experts, and work to achieve higher-order skills like “critical thinking” and “problem-solving.” Yet, according to international studies, these turn out to be the very skills that our students lack compared with students in Asian and European countries that have placed less emphasis on formal skills and more emphasis on coherent year-to-year subject matter. Higher-order skills are important, but they are not gained best by endlessly focusing on them. Anybody who is reading this probably possesses the skills advocated by A Nation at Risk. They can read the words with comprehension, and think about them critically. Somehow we have gained these higher-order skills without being taught them directly. Few of us learned critical thinking by taking lessons in critical thinking.
How did we manage that? Cognitive science is clear on the point—through practice. By the time A Nation at Risk was published in 1983, cognitive psychology had achieved a consensus about the importance of long practice and the content-based character of most academic skills. But the science of psychology was not often alluded to in A Nation at Risk, and today, 25 years later, there is still little crossover between cognitive science and educational policy.
A Nation at Risk simply assumed that gaining an academic skill such as reading or reckoning is independent of the specific curricular content through which the skill is taught. This is wrong. There is a scientific consensus that academic skill is highly dependent on specific relevant knowledge.
So Hirsch is right when he calls upon us to provide students with the knowledge based tools necessary to think critically. You cannot critically think about the causes of war and conflict, if you don't know the history of nationalism, of religion, of economics, and the other causes of the great wars. To think critically about war and peace, bereft of knowledge, is as futile as it was for our current President to imagine that he could turn Iraq into a Jefferson democracy. Critical thinking without knowledge is dangerous.

Ironically, Hirsch's own venture into mathematics education represents an illustration of this very problem. For Hirsch seeks to apply his theories of learning and thinking from the social sciences, writing and reading, and apply them blindly to the teaching of mathematics, where he seems to be ill-prepared. This is one of the dangers of educational theory. We find a good idea, and then we try to make it a universal principle.

Hirsch believes that mathematical genius results from an accumulation of little differences in arithmetical learning, as if mathematical strenth comes from doing your sums and times tables each day. He writes:

What makes a math genius is thus in large part what makes a great musical performer—a small advantage in talent leads, over time, with long effort, to a big advantage in achievement—as in the old joke: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” Answer: “Practice, practice, practice.” In general, it is not some Kryptonitic superiority of Superman-like endowment that accounts for high expertise in any subject, but rather tenacity of practice (lasting on average some 10 years). What is true for math and music is also true for language abilities. Wide knowledge and a large vocabulary—the prerequisites to high achievement in high school—are gradual accretions. You cannot gain them by a sudden intensive incursion into high school.

But lovers of mathematics know that this is not so. Mathematics, is the exception that proves Hirsch's rule, as it were. Mathematics is a form of critical thinking, of deep thinking. Hirsch misses the difference between arithmetic, which is for running cash registers, and mathematics, which is the logic and language of science. Mathematics is founded on an accumulation of little differences, true. The foundation of mathematics is not number facts: it is numeric understanding. You don't learn mathematics by memorizing math facts; you learn mathematics by understanding. Mathematicians are borne of a lifelong adventure in critical thinking. Hirsch's prescriptions for elementary school in literature, reading and social studies are stimulating; in mathematics they are suicidal.

For articles by E.D. Hirsch, follow this link.

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