ED Hirsch: 'Mainstream science' doesn't support direction instruction and small class sizes

2nd December 2016 at 06:45
In an exclusive article for TES, the favourite education guru of schools minister Nick Gibb and former education secretary Michael Gove takes policymakers to task for not embracing research evidence

Direct instruction, small class sizes and many of the “guiding theories and policies in schools” are not supported by “mainstream” science, according to ED Hirsch, an academic cited as a key influence on England’s current national curriculum.  

Writing in the 2 December issue of TES, the American education guru states: “[These things] were all supported by carefully conducted experiments. But in the long run they have disappointed…These disappointments suggest that mainstream science needs to be our guide, not confident slogans nor educational experiments. The uncontrolled variables in short-term educational research fly in every direction. Education is a long-range process.”

Hirsch was name-checked frequently by former education secretary Michael Gove during his overhaul of the curriculum and schools minister Nick Gibb has said that “no single writer” has influenced his thinking more than Hirsch. The US academic is best known for his 1987 book Cultural Literacy: what every American needs to know and his support for a knowledge-based curriculum.

Lack of clarity

In his exclusive TES article, Hirsch says that he has two key issues with current thinking on education.

“The consensus in basic science represents the reality principle in education,” he writes. “Any educational proposal or policy that runs counter to that consensus is likely to disappoint. This intellectual corrective is especially important when it comes to two ideas in particular: the importance of developmentally-appropriate practice, and the existence of general, all-purpose skills like finding the main idea, problem-solving, and critical-thinking.”

He goes on to suggest he has found the key driver for these misplaced ideas.   

“I think I can now identify the chief underlying idea that needs changing,” he writes. “I call it providential individualism – the focus on the unique individual rather than on acculturation, combined with the belief that some supervening providence like nature or the free market can guide our educational policies. On the contrary it’s neither providence nor nature but we adults who need to decide quite specifically what our children shall know and be able to do.”

He acknowledges that this view may be unpopular with some, but remains defiant.  

“The critique thus includes most of my colleagues in the school world,” he admits. “My main aim has been clarity. To offend everybody is one of the few prerogatives left to old age.”

This is an edited article from the 2 December edition of TES. Subscribers can read the full article here. This week's TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here

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