Controversial US 'core knowledge' textbooks brought to UK schools

22nd October 2010 at 01:00
Concern as think-tank proposes Hirsch's 'prescriptive' bestsellers as part of 'alternative curriculum'

A series of books by controversial American educationalist ED Hirsch is to be edited and published for British schools for the first time.

Right-leaning think-tank Civitas is to publish the What Your -th Grader Needs to Know books, which have been criticised in the US for being far too focused on prescriptive factual knowledge.

The books - sometimes considered a kind of national curriculum in a country where there isn't one - outline the content the author believes children should know in English language and literature, history, geography, maths, science, music, and art.

Civitas is now appealing for ideas from teachers, teacher trainers and academics on how the content should be adapted for English pupils.

Professor Hirsch, a retired University of Virginia professor, is best known for his bestselling 1987 book Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, which included 5,000 "essential facts".

Education Secretary Michael Gove and Nick Gibb, the schools minister with responsibility for reform of the national curriculum, have both spoken of their admiration for his work.

But the idea of a British version has already come under attack from educationalists, with one branding it "deeply worrying".

Civitas, which five years ago attracted controversy when it republished the 1953 history textbook Our Island Story, has now been given permission by Professor Hirsch's Core Knowledge Foundation to publish the books here - although changes must be approved.

Anastasia de Waal, deputy director of Civitas, said some changes were straightforward, such as converting measurements or rewording American words and phrases, such as "movie theatre".

But other changes are up for debate. An advisory panel will be set up and those interested in contributing will have around four months to put forward their views.

"Hirsch realised that for people to be able to participate in society and to realise a more egalitarian society everybody had to have a basic core knowledge of science, art, music, history and so on," Ms de Waal said. "This is not a textbook, because it doesn't explain how to teach it. Teachers are desperate for greater freedom, which is now on the cards, but freedom in itself doesn't necessarily lead to a good education.

"We want to make sure we come up with something that is valuable. It could work hand in hand with the new national curriculum, or as an alternative."

She added that the books did not dictate to teachers how the content - which is not designed to take up the entire curriculum - should be taught.

Dylan Wiliam, emeritus professor of the Institute of Education, said Hirsch's work was very powerful, but he had doubts about whether it could be transplanted here.

He said: "I think there is an underestimation about how smart the Hirsch project is. What he did was look at these things with a view to creating a public sphere within which people could debate.

"The danger is that if you transplant the international-looking bits, they are not rooted in the same consensus about what people need to be able to talk about.

"I would like to see the idea of a core knowledge project in England, but in my view it is a five-to-ten-year project rather than a four-month one."

And Richard Gerver, education consultant, said: "Michael Gove is incredibly wedded to Hirsch and the idea that knowledge is power. I'm deeply worried about the whole thing. It brings back the eternal debate, the misunderstanding of what we mean by knowledge. Traditionally, education has always been about amassing and recalling information. A lot of Hirsch's work is misinterpreted as being about knowing facts. I don't think he says that, but the minute you publish a list, it is out of date."

The first book in England will be for Year 1 children and is due to be published in September 2011, costing between #163;6 and #163;14. It is a non-profit-making venture, with income being split between the Core Knowledge Foundation and Civitas to cover costs and possibly provide training.

Core knowledge

Hirsch medicine

The idea behind Professor Hirsch's Core Knowledge Foundation is that knowledge snowballs - the more you have, the more sticks. The organisation's website declares that it outlines "the precise content that every child should learn in language, arts and literature, history and geography, mathematics, science, music and the visual arts".

It is driven by the philosophy that the primary duty of schooling is to offer access to the common knowledge that draws together people in its society.

This common knowledge still allows room for additional state or local requirements.

There are 770 schools in 45 states and the District of Columbia that use all or part of the Core Knowledge curriculum, as well as 414 preschools.


US split over need for curriculum

The critics of ED Hirsch come from both sides of the progressiveconservative divide.

While in England the principle of a national curriculum has now become widely accepted, it is still a controversial idea in the US.

In the winter 200910 edition of American Educator magazine, Hirsch wrote about what he calls the "anti-curriculum movement". He argued that schooling should be about equality, and that this meant giving children who don't gain academic knowledge at home the chance to catch up with their peers. He also attacked the progressive belief that a child-centred schooling could only be encouraged by resisting a rigorous academic curriculum, and damned the idea of encouraging children to develop their skills using whatever content they find engaging.

In response, Joel Shatzky, a retired English professor, wrote on the Huffington Post blog that Hirsch was being naive. He agreed with the need for all children to learn a core knowledge, but added that it was a "gross distortion" to call progressive education an anti-curriculum movement, saying many teachers have conducted core knowledge classes while still believing in progressive aims. He also claimed that Hirsch was too concerned with content and not enough with pedagogy, particularly the effects of assessment on what is taught.

Other critics of Hirsch come from a free market angle, contending that, instead of arguing for a national curriculum for all public schools, he should embrace school choice and diversity.

From this side of the Atlantic, it is interesting to dip into this American debate and see how the very idea of a single curriculum can be so political and divisive.Helen Ward.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today