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Tradition v. progressive education

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I have just finished reading a book entitled "The Schools We Need and Why We Don't Have Them" by E D Hirsch. It's about 4 years old and American, but the author's thesis is that the "new" education paradigm of concentration on skills, processes, and authentic learning instead of knowledge based subject teaching, because there is too much information for students to learn, is merely the ideas of the Romantic era of American education philosophy of the 1910s and 1920s "rebadged". I believe he puts forward a very plausible and well referenced case for why it is all wrong and contrary to what is really important in education. Has anybody else read it? If so, are there comments?

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It’s hard to give general advice that applies right across the curriculum. I used to teach modern foreign languages, a subject area which is largely skills-based and where we distinguish four discrete skills for the purposes of assessment, namely: Speaking, Writing, Reading and Listening. In some ways it’s an artificial distinction as there are interrelationships between the skills, e.g. listening skills are known to have a strong influence on speaking skills at the acquisition stage, etc. But in other ways it’s a useful distinction as it can signal, for example, to a future employer what the learner has actually achieved, and there are jobs in which writing is not required but a high degree of competence in listening and speaking is essential.

At the same time, the language learner has to acquire a great deal of knowledge: (a) a substantial vocabulary which must be committed to memory (it’s not a good idea to walk around with a dictionary strapped to one’s head) and (B) the grammar of the language but, more importantly, how to apply it – and I know of many gifted linguists who can’t explain grammatical rules but can apply them instinctively.

I have taught German and French, and I have made efforts to learn Italian, Spanish, Russian and Hungarian. Italian and Spanish came to me quite easily as a speaker of French, because of the huge overlaps in vocab and grammar. Russian was a bit trickier, but it’s in the same broad language family as English (i.e. Indo-European) so many words are immediately recognisable. Hungarian is another matter, because it’s not remotely connected with any of the other languages listed above. Some grammatical concepts are very different but not difficult to grasp once they have been properly explained. It was the vocab that threw me. Hardly any word looks or sounds remotely like words in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish or Russian. I made slow progress in learning Hungarian due, as I analyse it, to the difficulty in remembering vocab, i.e. acquiring knowledge. Once essential Hungarian vocab became fixed in my mind everything else slotted into place - but it was a slow process.

Are you familiar with the expression "to do the Knowledge"? In order to become a taxi driver in London you have to “do the Knowledge”. Potential cabbies are given a list of routes through London that they must learn by heart. The list, known as The Blue Book, contains 400 routes. As well as learning the 400 routes, the cabbie must learn the location of every hospital, law court, police station, railway station , all tourist locations, etc. There are rigorous tests on the Knowledge that the cabbie has to pass. It takes 2-3 years to do the Knowledge. See:


...and, on top of this, there are the essential driving skills that must also be demonstrated.

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I haven't read Hirsch's book, but your account made me think of the cyclical nature of educational thinking. At the introduction for new teacher trainees when I started my training, they read out for us the 'empty vessels' passage from 'Hard Times'. Gradgrind, the teacher, starts by telling Cissie, the new girl in a Lancaster-method classroom, that Cissie isn't her name, and that her father is a farrier, rather than a circus horse-trainer. Then he asks her "what is a horse?" The poor girl cannot say anything, which, for Gradgrind, is that she doesn't know a single fact about "one of the commonest of animals". He selects another boy, who reels out a rote-learned list of 'facts' about horses (such as how many teeth they have … but nothing about the sense of power you feel when you stand next to a high-spirited horse) and tells Cissie, "Now, you know what a horse is".

In other words, my attitude is that the American Romantics were reacting against the Lancaster-method 'factual', 'knowledge-based' teaching … and were reacted against by the rote-learning of the mid-20th century … which was reacted against by the more 'Romantic' learning of the late 20th century … which is being reacted against … perhaps by Hirsch. I suppose it all depends what society wants out of its schools. At the moment the premium seems to be on exclusion and elitism. In a few years, as our populations age and there's a shortage of people of working age, we'll suddenly find that inclusiveness is once again self-evident.

Another remembrance that comes to mind is the difference in attitudes to pilot training in the 1930s and 1940s. In peace-time, only a special breed of person could possibly learn to fly a plane (an Oxbridge education seemed to be one of the essential ingredients). When war came, however, and many more pilots were needed than were available, suddenly it was discovered that all sorts of people could become pilots.

Another exercise we had during teacher training was to answer the question "why do we have exams in schools?" The most plausible line of reasoning I heard went like this: society can't afford to send everyone to university, so we have to have some way of filtering out all those pupils we can't afford to provide with a university education. If this holds true, then we'll tend to open the gates a crack or two when we're a bit more flush with money, or in greater need of university graduates and close them again when the reverse is true.

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Very interesting and thought provoking answers.

Hirsch doesn't say skills and processes aren't necessary at all, but should be part of a knowledge based subject discrete curriculum - rather, I think, as Graham was describing. I think what he is saying is that the new paradigms are false when they suggest that you only need to learn to learn, that skills are very often not transferrable, that well-informed people can think better than poorly informed ones, that critical thinking skills are not a panacea in themselves and are not effective when taught in isolation, that it IS possible to select a suitable balance of knowledge to be learnt, and that not much is really learned from multi-disciplinary "projects", especially for those with learning difficulties.

He has a website at www.corecurriculum which may be of interest.

I am interested because we are having such a new paradigm curriculum imposed upon us, which dictates no particular content whatsoever, but only the required outcomes, which, to me, means that students/parents have absolutely no guarantee of any specific knowledge kids will learn. This seems like utter madness to me, but we are constantly told that it doesn't matter as long as they are "learning to learn".

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You can find E. D. Hirsch's website at:


It includes the following:

An Idea. . . that for the sake of academic excellence, greater fairness, and higher literacy, elementary and middle schools need a solid, specific, shared core curriculum in order to help children establish strong foundations of knowledge, grade by grade.

A Guide to Specific, Shared Content . . . as outlined in the Core Knowledge Sequence (a grade-by-grade guide to important knowledge) and supported in Core Knowledge resources, including the What Your Kindergartner - Sixth Grader Needs To Know book series.

A School Reform Movement . . . taking shape in hundreds of schools where educators have committed themselves to teaching important skills and the Core Knowledge content they share within grade levels, across districts, and with other Core Knowledge schools across the country.


Many people say that knowledge is changing so fast that what students learn today will soon be outdated. While current events and technology are constantly changing, there is nevertheless a body of lasting knowledge that should form the core of a Preschool-Grade 8 curriculum. Such solid knowledge includes, for example, the basic principles of constitutional government, important events of world history, essential elements of mathematics and of oral and written expression, widely acknowledged masterpieces of art and music, and stories and poems passed down from generation to generation.


Knowledge builds on knowledge. Children learn new knowledge by building on what they already know. Only a school system that clearly defines the knowledge and skills required to participate in each successive grade can be excellent and fair for all students. For this reason, the Core Knowledge Sequence provides a clear outline of content to be learned grade by grade. This sequential building of knowledge not only helps ensure that children enter each new grade ready to learn, but also helps prevent the many repetitions and gaps that characterize much current schooling (repeated units, for example, on pioneer days or the rain forest, but little or no attention to the Bill of Rights, or to adding fractions with unlike denominators).


A typical state or district curriculum says, "Students will demonstrate knowledge of people, events, ideas, and movements that contributed to the development of the United States." But which people and events? What ideas and movements? In contrast, the Core Knowledge Sequence is distinguished by its specificity. By clearly specifying important knowledge in language arts, history and geography, math, science, and the fine arts, the Core Knowledge Sequence presents a practical answer to the question, "What do our children need to know?"


Literacy depends on shared knowledge. To be literate means, in part, to be familiar with a broad range of knowledge taken for granted by speakers and writers. For example, when sportscasters refer to an upset victory as "David knocking off Goliath," or when reporters refer to a "threatened presidential veto," they are assuming that their audience shares certain knowledge. One goal of the Core Knowledge Foundation is to provide all children, regardless of background, with the shared knowledge they need to be included in our national literate culture.

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Every so often in Britain we have a debate on traditional v progressive education. What tends to happen is that both camps exaggerates the position of the opposition. For example, traditionalists accuse progressives of only teaching skills, whereas progressives claim that traditionalists are only interested in facts. The reality is of course much more complex. Very few people would believe that the content you teach does not matter.

I would put myself if the progressive camp. As far as my subject is concerned (history), I believe that it is important that students develop skills that enable them to function effectively as citizens. This of course includes the skills of analysing the material being produced to shape their views on the world. Though the emphasis should be on skills, I believe that the content you select to study is vitally important. Content should be selected that helps them understand the current situation that they find themselves in. For example, see this thread on the History Forum where Andy Walker and myself argued against the teaching of Jack the Ripper.


This view of education makes me highly critical of the current exam system. I think it is vitally important for teachers (and parents) to be aware of the progression that is being made in the intellectual development of the student. However, we spend too much time in schools measuring things that are not important. In other words, we tend to measure what we can easily measure rather than what is important to measure. For example, as a historian, one of the most important things I try to teach is empathy. This is of course very difficult to measure in a way that is scientific acceptable. I have been involved in an experiment where twenty teachers marked an empathy assignment. The range of marks we gave individual students illustrated that is was clearly a subjective, rather than objective exercise.

Successful measurement involves government officials, parents, students, etc., trusting the judgement of the teacher. Our government does not trust teachers and therefore devalues those things that only a skilled professional can measure. On the other hand, it is very easy to measure factual recall (it is also much cheaper, especially if it involves ticking boxes). These figures can then compared with those of other schools in different parts of the country. Great for governments trying to convince the public that standards in schools are improving but it has nothing to do with educating people to live in the modern world.

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I totally agree with you. but what worries me about what is happening here in Tasmania is that I believe most teachers had worked out over the last decade a pretty good balanced system - a basic curriculum covering a sequence of important knowledge eg the Yr 7 Social Science curriculum was Local Communities, our State history, indigenous people and their history, then in Yr 8 it was Ancient Civilisations and so on. Teachers here had worked out a facts based, but activity/skills enriched way of teaching which I believe (and so do a lot of them) was a sound, balanced methodology. We used criteria based assessment - each subject had a number of criteria which teachers addressed and assesssed so that no important aspect of the subject could be omitted. Now we are being told that it doesn;t matter WHAT you teach, provided you can at the end assess and report via "standards" and professional judgement that the child is literate, numerate, a communicator, an inquiry thinker, is "arts literate" and has a degree of "wellbeing". Nothing else has to be reported on - not maths, not English, not Science, not Languages etc. I cannot make myself believe that this is an improvement.

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The conference that I am involved in organising at the moment has the theme of Education for the 21st century and whilst peace, global and spritual education are large aspects of the conference there will also be discussions and talks about making education relevant and appopriate. I think this ties in with your questions to some extent.

So the link below is for the Council for Global Education


and this one is for City montessori school in Lucknow India. The worlds largest school which has won awards for its peace mandate and promotion of the belief that there is more to education than 'lernin' stuff'.


this link is for the conference, but as you can see the details about the latest one are not up there yet


I will be posting more on the conference when the website is up and running to give others the opportunity of attending.


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