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Bruno: Hirsch's Insights Both Obvious & Underappreciated

4042279241_10ab4f316e_nE.D. Hirsch had a big, well-read piece on the importance of vocabulary building recently, but Bob Somerby read it and complains that he's "fuzzy" on what Hirsch's point is supposed to be even after reading Hirsch's Wikipedia entry.

Somerby's objection is that the importance of background knowledge for reading comprehension is so obvious that Hirsch couldn't be famous if that's really his "key discovery".

Somerby's confusion is understandable in part because Wikipedia isn't as clear on Hirsch's thinking as it could be and in part because Somerby is right: what Hirsch is saying should be extremely obvious.

Yet what is striking about American reading education is that we often do not talk as if we believe Hirsch. Instead, we talk at great length about - and devote large quantities of instructional time to -  alternative conceptions of reading ability that emphasize context-dependent skills (like "making connections") rather than background knowledge.

To see how poorly the education world has processed the "obvious" importance of broad background knowledge, consider the subtle ways our language denies its relevance. For example, we routinely administer "reading assessments" to students to identify them as "good readers" or "poor readers".

Attempting to assess "reading skills" per se makes little sense on Hirsch's account because one's reading ability will vary greatly depending one's knowledge of the text's subject matter. This may seem obvious upon reflection, but it is in fact a subtle point easily forgotten by relatively knowledgeable educators who find themselves able to move from text to text with little variation in difficulty.

In truth, Hirsch probably shouldn't get credit for "discovering" these ideas so much as working hard to popularize them. That in itself is a major contribution, however, when you realize how much resistance these ideas face from educators. - PB (@MrPABruno) (image source)


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Okay, why not? Paul, how did you get from the importance of background knowledge to comprehension, which every teacher I know understands and supports, to this canard? "...when you realize how much resistance these ideas face from educators."

That's just not true. What I "oppose" and resist is Hirsch's comparatively shallow and generic laundry list of "cultural literacy", and especially the impoverished learning experiences that are often designed to inculcate passive familiarity with cliche ridden representations of it.

Here's an example of how background acquisition played out by happenstance. When I teach the chemistry of combustion, students produce hydrogen and oxygen gas in 60ml syringes and experiment with blowing soap bubbles with their gases, and lighting them. Without the addition of air to the hydrogen bubbles, they flame up nicely. When oxygen gas is mixed in the correct ratio, however, they explode loudly enough that earplugs are a wise precaution. We discuss the effects of scaling the reactions up, and I show the historic video of the Hindenburg (Oh, the humanity!). As they work out questions about the chemistry of the thing, we always "waste" a fair amount of time talking about what the Swastika on the airship meant in 1937, about the quality of the Pathe newsreel, and so forth.

About three years ago, they came in from their high-stakes tenth grade reading test absolutely exhilarated. There had been a reading about the Hindenburg, with a whole lot of questions. They'd aced it, they thought, and were shocked to discover that their friends had just guessed randomly, or left the questions blank.

Yes, of course they read better when they are have prior knowledge, duh. I don't appreciate a pedant coming around and claiming his particular prescription for that prior knowledge is sacred canon, is all. The acquisition of knowledge is much richer and more complicated than than Hirsch's Core Knowledge methods. There are ways to consciously ramp "background" experience up, and my generation of practicing teachers has developed a lot of them, but this post is already too long.

Mary, I'm not clear on where you think you disagree with Hirsch (or me). Do you think he's opposed to kids learning about the Hindenburg?

Hirsch is fine with kids learning "facts" about the Hindenburg. He doesn't believe constructivist and progressive lessons like the one I just described could teach facts, though. The lesson requires the engagement of students' own intellectual investment to move it outward into tangential territory. It then reserves its conclusion to follow their leadership, gently, so Hirsch mischaracterizes it as ant-intellectual.

Hirsch attributes ideas to progressive educators which we don't hold (as you did to "educators", in your essay). He denies the possibility of anyone teaching knowledge, "facts" and vocabulary the way we teach them, and therefore attempts to outlaw our progressive education work itself, denouncing it as undisciplined, free-formed, flighty and ineffectual.

Here are some examples, from Hirsch and his followers:

"Following the lead of the great literacy scholar Jeanne Chall, Hayes found that publishers, under the influence of progressive educational theories, had begun to use simplified language and smaller vocabularies."

"Though educational progressives deride teaching facts, research shows that cultural literacy is crucial to educational success."

"This misguided philosophy , known as “progressive education,” is based on the romantic notion that each child has an innate, instinctive tendency to follow its own proper development"

Diane Ravitch is a famous supporter of Hirsch, of course, and she was able to find evidence in his writings that he actually favors the kind of richly experiential, open learning frame we progressives work so hard to engineer. I've been arguing with her about it for years, and that's the difference she and Deb Meier finally bridged, of course. Here's her review of The Knowledge Deficit, if you've forgotten it.

I didn't sense anything especially "constructivist" about your Hindenburg lesson, so I'm still unclear about why you think Hirsch would object to it, though I guess he might prefer reorganizing some of the less-scientific content into other settings (like a social studies class).

I think part of the issue is that you're conflating two related but separate issues: the content of instruction and the methods by which it is delivered.

Hirsch definitley makes empirical claims about trends in "watering down" the content students are learning, and often marshals evidence to that effect, so I'd be curious to know if you have counter-evidence - for example, that publisher's *aren't* using simplified language.

As for the methods of instruction, that's sort of tangential to my point in this post, and I don't know as much about Hirsch's attitude toward different methods of instruction. And, again, since what you described as a "constructivist" lesson about the Hindenburg sounds like it involved a lot of direct instruction in factual content, I'm still unclear on your point of disagreement.

Obviously, not all "progressives" or "constructivists" think the same way about these things. But Hirsch is talking about trends and on those trends he seems mostly correct even if there are often individual exceptions and educators fall along a spectrum.

Paul ... Sorry this is off-topic, but I'm trying to track down something you posted here about school discipline programs. Can you point me to that post?

Both. Thanks!

Sheesh. So much for engagement around actual teaching and learning. This concludes my yearly attempt at reaching out.

The lesson on combustion is constructivist because students generate their own questions about their experiments, share them, and experiment again. From all of this I do assist them mightily as they wonder new things, enabling them to actively construct their knowledge of combustion chemistry. It would take pages for me to explain it to you, I now fear.

I've never been adversely evaluated by anyone who observed my actual classroom, but I've been written up (twice) by administrators for contributing lesson plans at standards-based training sessions, which didn't accord with Hirsch's ideology.

In one case, I failed to benchmark "give the electron configurations of the first 22 elements" correctly, because my lesson didn't limit itself to the exact "facts" of spdf notation, but strayed into quantum orbitals themselves, which aren't in the framework anymore. The worst blow-up was indeed over vocabulary building. My heresy was an activity with saturated solutions asking students to use the target vocabulary to describe and explain their results, instead of assembling word clusters to generate responses on test items, like the model we were shown.

Finally, I'm at a loss as to how you think your own argument supports Hirsch's connection between progressivists and "dumbing down" vocabulary. Listen to yourself, "I'd be curious to know if you have counter-evidence - for example, that publisher's *aren't* using simplified language." Since I have no evidence that text book prices aren't going up, that must be the fault of progressive educators, also. So, we're out of the territory of connected thought, wandering in a land of blissful ignorance of teaching and learning theories.

Wait! That suggests some common ground. You mentioned the Onion. and surely you've at least heard of Piaget?

" impoverished learning experiences that are often designed to inculcate passive familiarity with cliche ridden representations of it."

Sounds like Mary is describing her own opinion of Hirsch: uninformed and cliche ridden representations based on impoverished familiarity with anything Hirsch has actually written or done. If you think Hirsch would be opposed to your students learning lots about the Hindenburg, you have no idea what you're talking about.

JDE, that particular description was inspired by my long afternoon at a KIPP academy, observing Core Knowledge being systematically transmitted by mind-fuzzingly stupid smart-board worksheets in class after class. The great rivers were black lines on one worksheet, and the students minds were absent from the class's rote hit-or-miss endeavor. Eventually, they supplied at least some fragment of the exact short answers about early civilizations, which their teacher desired. She appeared to be occupied directing traffic, without even a pretense of intellectual engagement. Eventually, all the students filled in their worksheets by copying whatever she wrote on the whiteboard.

I included a webliography in one of my comments. Did you read those links? There are hundreds more. Bruno's response was that he didn't actually know anything about Hirsch's actual pedagogical claims, or how they're being used. He just knows they're obvious and under-appreciated.

Hirsch is attacking teachers who teach lessons like the one I described, by pretending we do something else, and his distorted denunciations of student-centered learning theories are politically driven.

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