There are countless books on education. Some will entirely change your outlook and thinking, revolutionising what happens in your classroom and in our schools. Some will be a complete and utter waste of your time.
It is with this in mind that I propose to put forward just one book for some of what I see as the key aspects of education. Over the coming weeks and months, I will be exploring one book for each of the following aspects: curriculum, assessment, teaching, school leadership and school ethos.
It has been easy to pick just one book for some of these categories, and devilishly difficult for others. Of course, my choice will be a personal one, informed by my own personal view of education, and I accept that it may not be a view all share. Hopefully, those who disagree with my choices will put forward alternative single wondrous tomes. We are, I think, always honing, always refining our thinking.
I’m beginning with curriculum. I take curriculum to mean the stuff a school teaches its children. Taking the “what” before the “how” is incredibly important to me, and is one of the defining aspects of the writer I have chosen.
E.D. Hirsch: Cultural Literacy
I’ve always had a longing to teach children challenging texts in English, but I have often shied away from articulating a curriculum-wide position. I’ve come to believe, now, that we must unapologetically teach the best stuff to all our children; but especially to the children who are least likely to encounter it outside of school, as Hirsch explains:
“Middle class children acquire mainstream literate culture by daily encounters with other literate persons. But less privileged children are denied consistent interchanges with literate persons and fail to receive this information in school. The most straightforward antidote to their deprivation is to make the essential information more readily available inside the schools.”
To be culturally literate, according to Hirsch, is “to possess the basic information needed to thrive in the modern world.” In our everyday interchanges, even in reading a daily newspaper, our comprehension and therefore ability to interact with, question and enact change relies on our background knowledge. The broader our background knowledge, and the more honed to the important “stuff” of the world, the more effective we will be at understanding and communicating.
Contrary to some dissenters, Hirsch reminds us, this “literate” culture “is not the property of any group or class.” I saw this on a small scale when visiting the first school I worked in, in South East London. There, at a fabulous concert in aid of a school trip to Malawi, I saw the children I used to teach uproarious in their enjoyment of classical music, hip-hop and spiritual songs, among others. Just as these children could enjoy every type of music without seeming aware of its cultural baggage, so we can anticipate children will enjoy and be interested in all different strands of literature, history, art, politics.
The key to my agreement with Hirsch is in his drive for social justice: we have a moral imperative to teach the good stuff: “illiterate and semiliterate Americans are condemned not only to poverty, but also to the powerlessness of incomprehension.”
A strong curriculum builds up this crucial, important knowledge piece by piece. We may begin by knowing only a small amount about a wide range of individual topics or people, but that little allows us a place to hang our later acquired knowledge and understanding on. At one point, Hirsch lists off several names, some of which I’ve only heard of, but can at least locate in a time period, discipline or ideology due to this background knowledge I have somehow absorbed (names like James Fennimore Cooper, Emily Dickinson, Benjamin Franklin, Ulysses S. Grant) and notes: “most of us know rather little about these people, but that little is of crucial importance, because it enables writers and speakers to assume a starting point from which they can treat in detail what they wish to focus on.” Simply put, “The more you know, the more you can learn.”
Hirsch’s message in this book is a hopeful one: all students can be “highly literate” if they are “presented with the right sort of curriculum.” This curriculum should be organized, according to Hirsch, as a vivid system of shared associations.” He does not advocate arbitrary prescription of the stuff children should know, commenting almost flippantly: “almost any battle will do to gain a coherent idea of battles. Any Shakespeare play will do to gain a schematic conception of Shakespeare.”
But clearly, analysing Shakespeare play is always better than analysing an advert. His comment “in each classroom somebody always does decide what material our children will be storing in their minds in the name of skills acquisition. All too often it is content for which our children will have no use in the future” rang true to me. I have spent too many lessons analysing language in simple advertisements and leaflets with 16 year olds in the run up to an English Language exam that did not teach a thing. This is time wasted, and for the children I teach this is an atrocity. The new, strengthened curricula in English at KS4 at least provide an impetus to teach far, far beyond such trivialities.
Finally, Hirsch makes the point that: “it isn’t facts that deaden the minds of young children… It is incoherence – our failure to ensure that a pattern of shared, vividly taught, and socially enabling knowledge will emerge from our instruction.”
So, a strong curriculum for me has the following components:
- Selection: of core knowledge: what are the ideas, concepts and facts students need to know in each subject in order to be able to access higher order ideas in that subject?
- Sequence: your curriculum sequence must build on prior learning; knowledge builds on knowledge.
- Revisiting: within this curriculum, there is space to revisit content and concepts, to strengthen them and aid learning.
- Coherence: a strong curriculum dovetails with other subjects where suitable, so that the overarching schema over the course of a year coheres.
- Challenge: the curriculum contains high quality, challenging stuff that is interesting and worth learning for all young people.
It is nearly impossible to write about curriculum alone; any construction of a curriculum requires simultaneous consideration of how we assess what has been learned, understood and retained. My next post will be exploring just one book on assessment.