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School Resources

Knowledge, the curriculum and E. D. Hirsch’s latest book

At the end of last year, I read E.D. Hirsch’s latest book, How to raise a citizen; the power of shared knowledge to unify a nation. While in the past I have struggled with the level of prescription Hirsch advocates in relation to knowledge and the curriculum, given the current increased focus in New Zealand on the place of knowledge in the curriculum, I was curious to see what he had to say.

At a most basic level, there was nothing startlingly new in Hirsch’s book. Nor do I think he adequately addressed some of the greatest tensions present in discussions around curriculum and knowledge – namely, what knowledge is taught and who gets to decide (indeed he seems to give the impression that it does not actually matter too much as long as the process for selecting the knowledge in the curriculum is transparent). However, the book does raise some interesting and useful ideas that are relevant to current discussions and activities occurring in New Zealand.

Knowledge is unifying and nation building, and it need not displace or minimise culture.

There is a constant tension in New Zealand education between providing schools with the autonomy to design a local curriculum and recognising that creating a shared knowledge base is a central foundation for participatory citizenship. Hirsch’s reminder that the teaching of knowledge (here he is referring to epistemic or propositional knowledge) should not in and of itself minimise or displace a student’s culture is hugely relevant. While research has shown the importance of schools valuing, embracing and reflecting the cultures of their students (and there’s been plenty of research demonstrating that many schools do not routinely do this in New Zealand), this can happen in conjunction with a knowledge-rich curriculum.

Knowledge reduces inequities and disparities.

Cognitive science research has clearly demonstrated the importance of knowledge for learning. The amount of existing knowledge we hold and the extent to which it is interconnected influences our ability to gain new knowledge. Furthermore, a strong knowledge base facilitates our ability to think and to apply our knowledge in relation to particular tasks and problems. Consequently, ensuring that all students have access to ‘powerful’ knowledge throughout their schooling, which goes beyond the socio-cultural knowledge that children can develop outside of school, in their homes and communities, is essential not only for students’ achievement at school but also their ability to engage in lifelong learning opportunities. 

A focus on knowledge should not mean a narrowing of the curriculum.

Emphasising the importance of knowledge in education recognises the importance of knowledge across all learning areas. It is essential that young people are exposed to a breadth of knowledge over their schooling – including the visual arts, the performing arts, culture, civics, literature – and that teachers have the knowledge and expertise to facilitate this breadth of learning.

Knowledge does not mean rote learning, boring lessons, standardisation or loss of autonomy.

A focus on knowledge in education frequently is associated with rote learning and memorisation. However, for Hirsch, knowledge is inherently interesting and engaging – opening up the possibility of new ideas, new worlds and new perspectives. Rather, Hirsch considers it to be the pedagogical decisions that teachers make when deciding how to teach particular knowledge that would lead to knowledge being equated with being boring. While Hirsch argues that individual teachers should have limited control over what is taught – definitely favouring a standardised approach to curriculum content – he does suggest that teachers should have considerable autonomy over how the curriculum is taught. That is, over pedagogy.

Given the recently released draft Aotearoa New Zealand’s Histories in the NZC document and the current curriculum refresh that is underway, the ideas discussed here seem particularly relevant. However, there are some outstanding questions, to which I do not believe Hirsch provided satisfactory answers. The first is what is the knowledge that students need access to at school, and how and by whom is this knowledge selected? Secondly, what are the types of resources and support that teachers need to effectively teach this knowledge whilst still maintaining a degree of autonomy over their pedagogy? And finally, what (if any) balance should there be between prescribed content and opportunities for localization? And similarly to the ideas listed above, these three outstanding questions seem to be pivotal to any discussions about refreshing the New Zealand Curriculum.