E D Hirsch’s visit to the UK and the neo-traditional teacher bloggers

3 min read

I┬ápicked up on Hirsch’s visit to the UK, when I noticed excitement amongst a number of teacher bloggers on Twitter. Though, I don’t follow them directly, there was an overspill of retweet excitement, arousing some of the tweeters that I follow.

I was aware of E D Hirsch from a general knowledge of education philosophy. I don’t know too much about him apart from his interest in promoting the learning of ‘knowledge’. I was also aware that his work had become fundamental to the educational reforms of Michael Gove when he was Secretary of State for Education.

Hirsch’s work is also very popular with neo-traditionalists in education, for example education bloggers like Tom Bennett and the neo-traditionalist author and Ark Academy head of research Daisy Christodoulou. There are number of others who argue for a teacher-led profession without the input of expertise from the educational research establishment. The education research establishment are often painted as the pedlars of pedagogical quackery of limited efficacy and reliant on dubious sources of evidence. One of the chief criticisms of the neo-traditionalist is that their evidence is largely baseless and flawed.

I watched quite a lot of Hirsch’s talk at Emmanuel College in Cambridge via periscope, he was hosted by the University’s commercial examining offshoot, Cambridge Assessments.

Hirsch contrasts the learning of knowledge with Piagetian constructivsim. Hirsch argues that knowledge should take precedence over child-centred learning (Piaget developmental constructivism). This he believes is necessary to promote equity in education, curricula need to have core knowledge (particularly at primary level). Knowledge is a necessary precursor to skills. He believes that knowledge is secondary to child-centred discovery learning in schools, the emphasis should be on knowledge, so that the disadvantaged can have improved life opportunities.

It is easy to see why they neo-traditionalists admire this, since it supports traditional pedagogy and practice: teacher-led classrooms involving teacher exposition, demonstration followed by pupil drill and practice. Importantly it is consistent with their rejection of academic educational research. Research which has drawn on, for example, Vygotskian sociocultural theory and the introduction of constructivist approaches. It also serves the Conservative vision of teacher-led education, where valued practice is a traditional type of lesson. I recall one neo-traditional teacher blogger saying, “I talk, they listen, how hard can it be?”

Hirsch’s philosophy is not necessarily of this political agenda or of the neo-traditional movement, however, he is a learned voice whose thesis has been adopted to give the movement philosophical authority.

I have nothing against knowledge in curriculum, pedagogy and practice. What I have trouble with is knowledge proceeding skills as a dogma. It is necessary, as a learning imperative, to manage the two side-by-side and in tandem. That is a principal skill required of any teacher. Advances in social cognitive theory, cognitive psychology and neuroscience show that knowledge and skills are inseparable human characteristics.

I have sympathy with the neo-traditionalist view that the teacher needs to have stronger standing both in the classroom and professionally. However, the focus on knowledge is not the solution. This diminishes the complexity of the classroom, teaching and of society.


  1. It is a misconception to assume ‘neo traditionalists’ wish to split knowledge from skills. The opposite is true. They are concerned, as it seems are you, with the way they have been decoupled with knowledge becoming little more than a vehicle for skills rather than a prerequisite of skilful performance. I talk about this in the first few paragraphs of this blog. https://heatherfblog.wordpress.com/2014/03/09/always-read-the-small-print-the-decoupling-of-skills-and-knowledge-in-our-exams/

    1. The case of music and the arts is interesting where it is helpful to recognise the distinctions between knowing how (not to be confused with skill, see Gilbert Ryle, also Scruton), knowledge by acquaintance (Russell), experience-knowledge/aesthetic knowledge (L.A. Reid) and knowing that or propositional knowledge. In this scheme propositional knowledge is not a preequisite of skillful performance. ‘Neo-traditionalists’ seem to recoil from the knid of subteties set out above. The tendency is to collapse these distinctions which is a loss producing a serious lack.

      1. Thanks John, yes I agree. I think there are some comparables between arts subjects and mathematics. Certainly in the tensions between knowing how (and having formal knowledge of) not necessarily leading to skilful performance.

        I think the neo-traditional argument rejects these subtleties as part of movement-wide rejection of educational research or scholarship that expounds pedagogy for skill development. It does not appear to be based on philosophical or psychological objection. It is going to be interesting to explore this further. It was a healthy discussion this morning.

    2. Thank you Heather. Just to try and illustrate what I am saying. In mathematics teaching (where I have most knowledge and skill) in spite of efforts to bring about reforms, the prevalent approach to teaching has been traditional and teacher-centred. This is useful for learning facts and becoming fluent in mathematical methods for solving routine problems. To be mathematically proficient pupils need opportunity to develop problem solving skills, to work with problems where the required method is not obvious or clear, or where there are a range of alternative approaches possible. Encouraging teachers to include even a few lessons where pupils have opportunity to work on student-centred problem-solving has proved difficult if not near impossible. There are two reasons a) that pedagogy for effective learning in these kinds of lesson is not well established, b) it is so much more challenging for the teacher: individuals or groups in the class will proceed in different ways and at different rates. This is much more demanding for the teacher and can be frustrating for pupils. But nonetheless important and necessary in facilitating the learning of skills.

      You can perhaps see, given my description above, why I am concerned when there is a suggestion abroad that knowledge is always a prerequisite.

      I am not saying the two should be decoupled, but that they both need to be considered.

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