Hirsch and the importance of dialogue
9th December 2013
We must remember, in The Knowledge Deficit, Hirsch is talking about primary education. He understands explicit instruction will be of only limited benefit after a short while – he suggested 40 minutes a day – and only for the teaching, learning and practice of specific ‘skills’ – the acquisition, application and development of reading and writing. We must presume he would also advocate the teaching of maths ‘skills’ in the same way, certainly the vast majority of primary school teachers would and do.
The reason for this is two-fold. First, he understands young children will not concentrate on the delivery of explicit information beyond a certain amount of time (this might have something to do with cognitive load, I’m not an expert and he doesn’t mention it) and so after 40 minutes or so, depending on the age of the children, it is time to move on. Second, Hirsch is very clear that learning code, that is reading and writing, is very different from learning language. He refers to Steven Pinker and describes language as an instinct, something which human minds have evolved to develop through use, not receive through instruction. Language must be taught differently he says, through its ‘implicit’ use. Pedagogically this means students must spend much of the rest of the day using and hearing language – developing vocabulary and use – through activities that promote language, including drama and dialogue. Hirsch is not an advocate of passive learning, he wants children speaking, as well as listening. As does Willingham. Otherwise children will not learn to use language in the sophisticated forms enjoyed by the privileged. There are no short cuts to this, education – as advocated by Hirsch – must be language rich, both the language of the teacher and the language of the students. People who argue Hirsch is arguing for less student talk and less active learning are misrepresenting his ideas.
I’ll also mention something about knowledge. I’m not going to argue that knowledge is important, you argue that eloquently and we are on the same side on this matter. However, both Hirsch and Willingham, as well as auguring that knowledge acquisition is a dialogic processes, also argue, that knowledge acquisition is best learnt through the use of story-telling. They maintain, stories are ancient methods of making meaning and forming connections between existing and new information. They create contexts that people can remember and, then use, to retrieve knowledge which would otherwise be disparate and unremarkable. We remember huge amounts of facts about the Beatles and the cultural world they inhabited because their lives, songs, and images create a rich web of memories for us. For younger people this web is much thinner and much weaker. If we try to hang new information on it, it is likely to break and the information will be lost. Hirsch and Willingham understand this, and they both advocate weaving meaningful and engaging contexts with children, to create stronger and more resilient webs – for them.
I read both The Knowledge Deficit and Why Don’t Children Like School on your recommendation, both are excellent and I learnt much. But, I think we must be careful not to cherry-pick their arguments and use only those bits that suit us. Pedagogically they are a challenge. Both books make a compelling argument for why our current system of schooling doesn’t work. They then go on to recommend new directions for reforming and improving practice. I believe it does them both a disservice if we only highlight those parts of their pedagogy we agree with and ignore those that are less appealing. The knowledge v skills debate it still wheezing along like an old dog and many are ready to put it out of its misery. I say, let’s give it a rest (a nice cozy basket to cuddle up in) and let’s have a new debate, one inspired by Hirsch and Willingham, one about student talk and why the development of language is built on dialogue – speaking and listening, questioning and answering – and not on the delivery of information from one place to another.