ED Hirsch – Really not the bogeyman Part 1

7th August 2013

E.D. Hirsch, ‘The Knowledge Deficit’

Over the last two or three years E.D. Hirsch, a retired Professor of Education and Humanities from Virginia, USA, and his ideas on why American education doesn’t work, have become a cause célèbre. He is considered, depending on your point of view, either an inspirational guru of great insight or a pantomime villain with dangerously reactionary views.

In my experience academics writing about education are rarely extremists, they are usually thoughtful and careful about their conclusions and tend to walk the centre line. Hirsch, despite the hype, is no exception.

His ‘hardline neoconservative’ reputation is probably due in large part to his theory that American education has been ruined by a series of damaging ideas originating from the work of Rousseau and the Romantics, and disseminated by Progressive educationalists such as Dewey. This theory he outlines in strident fashion in Chapter 1: ‘Why Do We Have a Knowledge Deficit?”

To be honest I found this part of his book unconvincing and a bit off-putting, I’m not keen on polemics and I don’t like being told what to think, especially if I detect the author is trying to claim special abilities because of his expert knowledge, “My academic specialties thus freed me to think in new ways about what has gone wrong in our schools” (p.6).

I find this sort of thing the intellectual equivalent of, “Trust me, I’m a doctor” and it always has the opposite effect on me.

For these reasons I’m going to skip over the first chapter and only concentrate on those parts of the book that are worth considering from a teaching perspective.

Before I start it is worth pointing out a couple of things. The first is that the book is mainly about the teaching of literacy in Primary education. It does have some application for Secondary, but the examples that illustrate Hirsch’s argument are all from the teaching of young children.

The second is that Hirsch, in common with many academics who don’t teach, is strong on ideas (although not all his ideas are strong), but weak on practice. Sometimes the teaching activities he recommends sound naive, even quaint – such as young children pretending to be radio announcers to practice their standard English – and is not at all clear if he has much, or even any, recent and relevant teaching experience at Primary age. Which is a shame, because this knowledge deficit (see what I did there?) seriously weakens his argument.

Notes on the human mind and language:

Although it takes a while for Hirsch to get there (page 64) the really important teaching idea in “The Knowledge Deficit” is Steven Pinker’s assertion that the human mind learns spoken language and written language in different ways.

The argument is that the human brain has evolved to make meaning of spoken language without the need for explicit instruction – children learn new vocabulary and knowledge in familiar contexts indirectly through tacit experience – but has not evolved to understand written language in the same way – the rules, codes and conventions of written language have to be taught more directly.

“A plausible explanation is that we humans don’t possess a built-in alphabet-phoneme-mapping faculty but we do possess a built-in word-meaning-learning faculty.” (p.64)


This idea sounds plausible and scores highly both on my own experience of what works in the classroom and on future utility. I followed up the Pinker reference and read more about his theory on his website and I’ve ordered, “The Language Instinct” which will hopefully arrive in the next few days. His argument that human language has been around for hundreds of thousands of years, so humans have evolved innate language learning abilities, sounds convincing. As does, the reason we haven’t evolved the same innate abilities in reading and writing is because it is a much more recent invention, 5,000 – 6,000 years.

In an education context the theory strongly implies that different learning outcomes require different kinds of teaching:

  • Learning the skills of decoding and encoding for reading and writing require explicit instruction and extended practice using short focused activities.
  • Whereas, learning new knowledge and developing understanding requires implicit instruction in familiar contexts, over time, with students being active participants in the process of making meaning.

This is both a reassuring and useful conclusion because it matches very closely what I’m already doing in the classroom, while also giving me a new way to understand why this approach works and how to refine and make it better.

Pedagogically it makes sense and explains why children should experience a range of different activities during the school day, which will help them over time to develop different kinds of knowledge, skills and understanding.

I would be interested in developing a curriculum timetable that would create an effective and manageable teaching and learning structure based on these ideas.

Notes on children becoming effective readers;

The next ‘big’ idea in ‘The Knowledge Deficit’ is more about curriculum design.

“Reading comprehension requires prior ‘domain-specific’ knowledge about the things that a text refers to, and that understanding the text consists of integrating this prior knowledge with the words in order to form a ‘situation model’.” (p.17)

This means that children, to become effective readers, need to develop three interrelated forms of knowledge:

  • Decoding skills (this is a form of procedural knowledge, which Hirsch also calls a skill)
  • Domain specific knowledge (formal, culturally defined, subject knowledge)
  • Knowledge of the language of standard-code (formal English, vocabulary and the conventions of spoken and written language)

Those children without knowledge of all three will be at a major disadvantage.


I like this idea of the ‘situation model’. Hirsch is making an important point that reading comprehension is not the same as decoding and that children, even the ones who learn to decode well, can not necessarily read well unless they have knowledge of the subject.

This is an argument against ‘content light’ reading schemes and school curriculum where children spend their time learning formal skills without developing knowledge about the world. I’m in full agreement with this. It has been my experience that very young children even from nursery age are fully able to start learning information from different domains of knowledge; history, science, geography etc. (in ways that are meaningful and engaging to them) and that we do a great disservice to them if we waste their time on nonsense. Time is a precious commodity in schools and we should be using every moment as an opportunity to develop children’s knowledge and skills.

Further, Hirsch is very aware of the importance of spoken literacy in the development of domain knowledge and knowledge of the standard-code. Speaking and listening are a vital part of Hirsch’s curriculum and should, in his opinion, constitute a substantial part of the school day. He says children understand much more than they can read and although they should spend an appropriate amount of time reading and writing every day, the rest of the time should be used developing their knowledge and skills through activities that utilise speaking and listening.

Notes on decoding and encoding:

Although Hirsch stresses the importance of ‘persistent explicit instruction’ he is clear this should not be a tedious exercise in rote learning.

  • The best and fastest way to teach decoding is persistent explicit Instruction a little at a time
  • However, “Becoming a skilled decoder does not ensure that one will become a skilled reader” (p.24)
  • He recommends, “time spent on decoding and encoding (writing) skills should not exceed 30 to 45 minutes a day.” (p.81)


I can’t think of single primary school I have been to in the last ten years, and I’ve been to a lot, that has not been using phonics regularly and systematically as part of the way they teach reading and writing. This is not a new idea or one that has had trouble being adopted. In fact I remember the first school I worked in back in the early 90s, a school that placed a very high premium on creativity and was led by a headteacher immersed in ‘progressive’ education (she had a copy of the Plowden Report on her book shelf, next to a photo of A.S. Neill) that introduced phonics to the children from their first week in Reception.

The truth is phonics work for most children, most of the time, but not for all and, as Hirsch points out, being able to decode is not the same as being able to read. Let’s keep this all in perspective, phonics are not a silver bullet.

Notes on developing language & knowledge:

Apparently the teaching of knowledge explicitly has, for some, become a very bad thing. I’ve never actually met one of these people, but according to Hirsch and others, they have had a malicious stranglehold on US and UK education since the late 1960s. To be honest I don’t care much for this theory, nevertheless Hirsch has a point when he says knowing stuff is important.

The task of teaching decoding is different from developing language and knowledge, both are needed to develop comprehension, “the decoding task is absolutely essential, but as we’ve seen, it is a different task, and it is long-range one that should not hold back progress in language and knowledge.” (p.32)

  • A good early start in verbal knowledge and world knowledge important. Young children can understand much more than they can read and we must, therefore, spend large amounts of time reading aloud and discussing challenging material with children.
  • Children need to learn the core knowledge that aids reading comprehension, “We don’t need to teach the things that writers directly explain we need to teach what writers take granted and do not explain”
  • If there is shared knowledge all children must have it is our duty to determine what that knowledge is…and keep it safe from ideological and political controversy. (p44)
  • Hirsch is opposed to giving children ‘content free or light’ material to read, “I have no disagreement at all with the asking of why questions about substantive readings, however I disagree with reading with the little cumulative educational value on the principle that learning formal procedures is more important for future reading competency that the actual content being read.”(p49)


I really have no problem with the idea that children should be taught challenging, rich and useful knowledge from a range of domains using different teaching techniques from a young age. This just does not sound controversial to me.

However, the idea that there is a core of shared knowledge, which we can all agree on and keep free of dispute I’m not so sure about. The National Curriculum is the closest we have and the last review hardly seemed to be entirely free of ideological or political interference or go by without a hint of controversy.

Notes on learning formal language:

As well as a being familiar with a core of common knowledge, Hirsch also stresses the importance of children developing an understanding of the different codes and conventions of formal language and writing.

Children need to learn the difference between the elaborate code of ‘school speech’ (formal language) and the more familiar restricted code of ‘home speech’. School speech uses standard English and makes it clear that different forms of language are used in different places. Children need to learn when and where to use different language forms.

Further, these differences are transferred to writing, which uses a form of print code that relies on a shared body of background knowledge, vocabulary and understanding of an elaborate system of conventions.


For teachers interested in drama, the words code and convention have a special resonance and when Hirsch mentions them it is difficult not to be immediately reminded of the work of Dorothy Heathcote. Heathcote’s work, through drama for learning, focused on the use of sign and significance in social situations and her essay on sign, “Signs and Portents” in “Collected Writings on Education and Drama” is one of the seminal works in drama and theatre. Heathcote maintained that conventions are socially agreed constructs that people use to make meaning. They have to be used and applied in multiple contexts, that become more sophisticated over time.

It seems unlikely that Hirsch is familiar with Heathcote, he certainly does not mention her in his book, however, teachers interested in the use and developments of conventions in drama and writing might want to search her out.

Her use of framing, a theory she borrowed from Goffman, does sound very similar to Hirsch’s use of language and behaviour in different social situations.

– More on Hirsch tomorrow…


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