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Mr. Klein: It is with great pleasure that I introduce E.D. Hirsch,
he will be the final speaker today. Immediately after his talk, we will have the
open microphone (Applause).
Mr. Hirsch: It always, even at this time today, gives me a boost to hear Bill Honig
talk. Bill, I was very optimistic about your comments, and I want to get a hold of
those materials as soon as possible, that you mentioned. But you didn't, by the way,
say the title of what the(Inaudible) --.
Mr. Honig: The Mathematics Source Book.
Mr. Hirsch: Great. Thank you. Another thing, I thought this was the time to (Demonstrating)do
the earlier dance -- I think at this time of day having listened attentively and
sometimes with great emotion to so many wonderful things being said, that -- I'm
going to make one big point, though it will be 27 minutes (Laughter). And the big
point is that the only way that we're going to achieve equal educational opportunity
is to be very, very explicit in almost every aspect of schooling, both regarding
what is to be taught and how it is to be taught. By that I don't mean you have to
teach it only one way, but rather that explicitness is the theme to achieve equity.
This is a theme that we heard today in various ways.
Now, most -- I now teach at an education school -- most of the ideas advocated at
my own school, the University of Virginia, except for the department devoted to the
learning disabled, extol the educational virtues of not being explicit. My colleagues
celebrate implicit modes such as thematic learning, hands-on learning, integrated
learning, situated learning, constructive learning, project learning, discovery learning.
I'm sure you all know these modes. They try to encourage student learning by replicating
complex real-world conditions and situations.
But if you want equity, equal educational opportunity, learning by all students,
that's exactly the wrong advice. At my university, in the School of Education, and
I believe this is fairly widespread and may even be true here in this School of Education
the practice of focusing on isolated facts to be learned or isolated subskills to
be mastered is disparaged. Elementary school teachers are instructed quite explicitly
to avoid explicit instruction (Laughter). Science is to be taught by the hands-on
method. Math is to be taught by concrete applications to real life. History is to
be taught by projects, not mere stories filled with dates and facts.
When teaching the underground railroad, the secret escape route for run-away slaves
before the civil war, teachers shouldn't just explain to students what the railway
was. If biscuits were eaten by run away slaves , then let's bake biscuits so students
will discover what the food was like. Then we can compute the distance between safe
houses to find out how far the runaways had to walk in a day, and thus we integrate
math and history, and science can be integrated into the project by discussing the
nutritional value of biscuits(Laughter).
I don't know how many know Lisa Delpit's 1995 book called "Other People's Children."
Many have praised that book rightly for talking about the difficulties of blacks
and other minority groups in America's public schools. But some who praise the book
overlook how powerfully it indicts integrated and discovery learning and other implicit
motives of teaching. In fact, she calls them elitist and she shows why these implicit
methods are really understandable only to those who are already in possession of
the needed background knowledge ,or what she calls "the codes of power"
that they have already received from their homes. Implicit modes of teaching can
only be understood by kids who come from homes that have already taught those middle-class
codes and middle-class levels of background knowledge.
She powerfully stresses the point to that although implicit teaching is praised in
schools of education as being socially and politically progressive , it is really
an unprogressive mode of exclusion. So it has just the opposite social effect desired
by those who advocate it.
I don't suggest rejecting hands-on techniques or all progressive methods. That would
be foolish. I think we should be pragmatists when it comes to teaching methods. Every
class is different. One finds out what works in particular classroom situations.
But the place for projects and for discovery learning is after all students have
been primed to discover what there is to be discovered, not before ,and not just
the lucky few.
The popularity of implicit, naturalistic learning, which is -- one has to say --
very popular, anybody studying schools will tell you that this is the dominant theme
-- does not have its roots in psychology as is usually claimed. The popularity of
projects and hands-on learning has its roots in American intellectual history and
specifically in the romantic tradition that natural learning is best. But if you
untether this notion from its romantic origins, it gets expressed in technical terms
such as "situated learning," and pretends to be a purely scientific theory.
But technical terms like "situated learning" really mask a faith in the
rightness of all things that are natural.
That's the reason book learning, for example, is considered to be inferior to reality
learningó going all the way back to Emerson who said the farm is the best teacher,
not books. It is better to take afield trip to a box-making factory than sit in rows
in classes reciting facts about gravity or other dry academic subjects. Kliebard's
history of the American curriculum has a charming picture of John Dewey's classroom
at the turn of the century, 1900. The teacher and kids all have aprons on, and are
intently stirring pots and pans. And if you contrast that humane and natural approach
to the deadening picture of students in traditional schools, sitting in rows, parroting
abstractions, they don't understand, it seems a lot better to stir pots and pans.
I think it is odd that this abhorrence of abstraction even extends to mathematics,
which as everybody knows here, by 12th grade ,we are by far in last place among the
developed nations. But this romanticism holds such sway over our educational theories
that teachers are told that children will naturally develop a sense of place value
by age 10 through studying real-world applications, and will understand procedures
much better by real-world applications. And in math, this confidence in the natural
is completely misplaced. Place value is a completely artificial invention. High civilizations
are risen and fallen without it. It took Europe 1500 years of real-world applications
to discover the conventions of place value (Laughter). Even then they didn't discover
it. They had to be told it, as you know, by the Arabs. For first graders it is undoubtedly
correct that you have to know you put two oranges in one pile and two oranges in
another pile and add an orange to the two piles, then each of the piles have three
-- but the other point about math, it seems to me, and I would hope to be corrected
by those of you who really know about math and math instruction -- it seems for me,
many real world problems are only solvable after they have been translated back into
the artificial conventions of mathematics. In fact, it also seems to me the great
power of math lies in discovering relations that can't be intuitively understood
by direct analogy or application in the real world. Its power lies in its abstraction,
in its procedures -- and, of course, in knowing when to apply the procedures.
Just to check out this notion, I asked a distinguished mathematician at my own university
why I didn't have the real world understanding of why 1/13/17ths was the same as
17-13ths. I could not get my mind around a real-world example of why that was so.
And you know, I'm not bad at math, not particularly good. And his answer I think
is worth repeating. He said "I can't give you a real world understanding of
that. I don't have that myself. I can prove it to you by equations. And once you
have proved the correctness of a procedure," he said, "you go ahead and
make it second nature. You learn to trust the procedures."
Now, I don't know how that fits in with what truly constitutes math understanding.
But I thought it was a very interesting answer. But in any case, it brings us to
the central issue in the debate between, what shall we call them? --traditionalists
I think it is largely a debate between advocates of explicit teaching versus advocates
of implicit teaching. Teaching place value by real-world applications or just teaching
place value. It is not a debate about whether student s should be able to apply their
learnings to life. Everyone agrees on that goal. The question is whether students
are more likely to achieve real-world skills through artificial -- explicit means
or natural implicit means. Should students first be provided with explicit modes
of instruction focused on small, manageable chunks, deliberately isolated from the
complexities of real situations -- or immersed right away in complex situations that
simulate real life?
Well, you know the answer of a football coach, or anybody who has to create teams
that win. You give explicit instruction -- and it is also the same answer given by
cognitive psychology ó you give explicit instruction in and encourage practice
in the isolated subskills. Then you practice putting them together until you reach
the level of what Bill calls automaticity.
My favorite example is from cognitive psychology and was published in 1987 by two
psychologists, Biederman and Schifrar, and I want to digress and describe that experiment.
I find it quite interesting and I hope even at this hour you will. It involves sex,
in this case not particularly interesting to humans. It focused on the problem of
teaching people how to discern the sex of day-old chicks. Now, this has important
financial implications for egg-producing farmers who obviously profit only from female
But the problem is that clear sexual characteristics don't appear in chicks until
over a month has passed, by which time the useless male birds will have consumed
just as much of the feed as the much more valuable females. And so the problem is
to discern the sex of the day-old chicks and consign them to chick heaven before
they can eat too much food. That's of high commercial value. In fact, in California,
chick sexing schools have been set up. There's one in California and one in Canada.
And the training lasts from 6 to 12 weeks and involves real-world, live chicks. And
now, these sexual characteristics are extremely variable, and they are very subtle.
And even if they have weeks of guidance from mentors, the trainees rarely gain a
correctness rate of 80%. So this is an example, certainly ,of real-world project
learning and discovery learning -- with real chicks.
But it occurred to Biederman and Schiffrar who are familiar with the literature,
particularly on implicit versus explicit instruction, that these chick sexing schools
presented an opportunity for an experiment -- they wondered if they could construct
a more efficient learning program based upon their knowledge of psychological literature.
They decided to capitalize on the experience of a Mr. Carlson, who had spent 50 years
sexing over 55 million chicks. And so they created a set of 18 photographs representing
different types. And Mr. Carlson was able to isolate the range of critical features.
And on the basis of his analysis, they created -- the psychologist created a single-paged
And the training consisted in looking at this instruction sheet for approximately
one minute. And so to conduct the experiment, they got people without any chick sexing
experience and half of them were the control, and half were the experimental group.
And both were tested. And the ones who didn't study the leaflet scored 50%, which
of course is chance because you only have male and female. And the readers of the
leaflet scored 84%, which was higher than professional chick sexers after they had
graduated from school. And the distinguished psychologist from whom I took this example,
Allen Baddeley, said, "This is an extremely effective demonstration that one
minute of explicit learning can be more effective than a month of implicit learning."
Well, is the teaching of early reading like the teaching of chick sexing? In some
ways, absolutely yes, as Bill clearly described to you. Mr. Carlson's 50 years of
experience enabled him to isolate those traits into an analytical chart that could
be learned in 60 seconds. This feat is analogous to the feat of ancient scholars
isolating phonemic structures of speech in an alphabet of 26 letters, which is, of
course, one of the great feats of human intellectual history. Once accomplished,
it can be recited by a non precocious preschooler. And then teachers and their students,
as Bill described, can be trained in the 43 phonemes of English and their complex
correlations with those 26 letters, and shown how to teach them. So despite the ideological
disputes swirling around the teaching of reading, disputes which in my view go back
to what I call the strange romantic intellectual history of our nation -- there's
ample evidence that carefully planned, explicit instruction in these letter-sound
correlations is the fastest and surest way of getting all children -- and of course
that's the point of equal educational opportunity, empowering all children to decode
The implicit approach, by contrast is very like that chick sexing school where there
were just too many factors impinging on the perceptions of the trainees. All those
chicks with their reality and individuality. And you know, your mind is being bombarded
by so many possibilities and traits that are irrelevant to the particular learning
goal. I won't press that point any further, but it seems to me this is a good example
of the general principle of Delpit's book "Other People's Children" which
alone is worth the price of the book. The chapters on the advantages of explicit
instruction as the best way to reach all children are priceless, and very helpful
to the cause, because of her identity as an experienced African American teacher,
teaching African American students.
Well, some of you may know my own work is involved with being explicit about content
as an essential means to equity. I mean being really explicit -- that is, in first
grade, in Core Knowledge Schools, all children learn about herbivores, carnivores,
centimeters, inches, feet -- very particular. But the idea, of course, was to ensure
that not just that a favored few got the background knowledge to be ready for the
next grade. We tried to determine what it was that advantaged kids knew that disadvantaged
kids didn't know, and we tried to provide that knowledge to all kids. And in fact,
all children benefit from that kind of explicitness.
I'm going to end by giving a kind of lighthearted analogy to that. In 1955, Nancy
Mitford, who is a British aristocrat and writer became a traitor to her class by
revealing some of the codes the British upper class used to recognize one another
and exclude outsiders. And she termed those upper class codes "U" and their
bourgeois counterparts "Non-U". Some of you may remember this event. And
for a time after the publication of her expose, it became possible for middle class
people to adopt terms like "false teeth" instead of the bourgeois "dentures."
It is as if a treacherous Hebrew speaker that taught the Philistines how to pronounce
the word "shibboleth" which the gentiles could not usually pronounce .
So Mitford's treachery caused confusion in the upper classes, because after all,
modern aristocrats are not any smarter or nicer or maybe even richer than ordinary
people. So if you understood their codes, then what was an upper class person to
Anyway, the aristocrats were not amused, and there was a flurry of correspondence
in the British press and Evelyn Waugh wrote an open letter calling her a socialist
(Laughter) Pierre Bourdieu, if you know that name, has a tremendous reputation in
education schools. And also, among, as I found out in a recent visit to South America,
also among professionals and educational administrators who have trouble achieving
equal educational opportunity in their school systems. He is a very difficult stylist,
but the long and short of what he has to say is that schools are sham levellers.
They can't really erase class distinction because class codes are learned implicitly
in the homes of the upper class. But Nancy Mitford is a kind of an anti-Bourdieu
figure, because she says you can subvert the class codes by spilling the beans, whereas
he says they have to be learned implicitly. I think it is a paradox that this very
widely-cited theory of cultural reproduction, as he calls it, comes from France --
I mean, France has the most equitable educational system in the world, mainly because
of its wonderful preschools.
In any case, the great equalizer of opportunity has been the school in modern history.
In the 19th century, not just the aristocrat, Lord Byron, learned those codes --
but so did Shelley who was below him in the social order, and Wordsworth and then
Keats , son of the manager of a livery stable called "The Swan and Hoop."
They were not invited to the same parties, but they're all on the same book shelf.
That's because the schools taught them the same codes. Mathematics, yes. But also
the communicative codes, how to read, how to communicate, how to write. And that
was because of the fruits of decades of scholars that had analyzed and made explicit
what was the basis of the writing code --people like Addison Steele had made explicit
how to behave -- grammarians explained grammar.. Dr. Johnson made a dictionary laying
out what the words meant ,and especially Hugh Blair ës "Rhetoric"
spelled out for generations of both British and American students all the allusions
everyone needs to know. So there was a kind of artificial creation and exposure to
these codes by everybody who went to school.
Anyway, I would say my own efforts in reintroducing this idea could be described
as a kind of Nancy Mitford style effort of making the implicit codes -- that is,
the codes held by the middle class or privileged class -- available to everybody
by being explicit. The determinism, social determinism which is rampant in the education
community, says that it isn't possible for people to rise in wealth and in education.
And that is hardly a scientifically grounded doctrine. I think it describes a tendency
which persists mainly because our schools are not making a very intelligent effort
to overcome social determinism,. To leave the content of the curriculum implicit,
to use implicit modes of teaching simply preserve the class structure. I think I'll
repeat that sentence -- it is late and that's probably the most important sentence
I have -- to leave the content of the curriculum implicit , and to use implicit modes
of teaching simply preserve the class structure. That's the very antithesis of the
democratic ideal . We need explicitness in content and teaching, which is a theme
I heard as an undercurrent here through the day. It is the only way to move closer
to equality of opportunity, which is a founding ideal of democratic education. Thanks.
Mr. Klein: I'd like to take two or three questions for Professor Hirsch and then
move immediately to the open microphone for people to make statements of any sort.
Audience member: It's a thrill to hear you speak. I'm trying to get my daughter's
school to inch towards Core Knowledge. Now that the State has Standards, is there
still a role for Core Knowledge in California? it strikes me that perhaps Core Knowledge
is more content rich. I'm not sure if it fits California standards, but can we make
them work together?
Mr. Hirsch: There are several Core Knowledge Schools in California, and I have to
say that I haven't myself studied the California Standards documents and Frameworks.
I haven't studied them. But those who have tell me that the two sets of standards
are harmonious, just that there is more in Core Knowledge, especially in early grades.
But I will say we will have our Core Knowledge conference out here in California
next year. In fact, not far away in Anaheim. And it could be great to see you there
-- you are all welcome . We have had quite a lot of people showing up at those conferences,
2700 showed up in Orlando, and we never advertised. So this is kind of a grassroots
movement. We really do need Core Knowledge schools here if the movement is going
to flourish . And I certainly hope and believe that the two are consistent . Those
who made the frameworks possibly know something about this. I hope we will be able
to mesh the two, because certainly the purposes are very similar, and one advantage
to Core Knowledge, I would say, even though it is a small organization, is there
are so many people over the past nine years that have actually created lesson plans
and all sorts of support systems, even including now textbooks that are aligned with
Core Knowledge, that my hope is that it will fit. So far we have been able to make
it work, but that's because the usual curricular guidelines are so vague.(Inaudible)
core difficult, once you start -- but then, this is a question I would like to throw
back at you and those of you who make education policy here. What do we do generally
about student mobility? If you become very explicit about your curriculum in the
State, it solves the problem of mobility within the State. A lot of people are moving
in and out of California so that argues for more commonalty among all of our states,
which is not exactly the same as national curriculum, which are words one must not
utter. (Laughter) but there's an obvious need for having these standards correlated
to some degree across the country. And so far, we have been able to do that in every
district. So I hope it will work.
Mr. Klein: One more question.
Audience member: I have a question. First of all, you are a hero to those of us who
have only been on the front lines maybe 6 or 8 years. Thank you for your perseverance.
My question begs to be asked. Why do those ideas of the education establishment have
such support among minority leaders when they are the very ones whose kids are being
ruined by the education in California?
Mr. Hirsch: That's a terrific question. That's the reason I use Lisa Delpit and her
book. We have to separate political and social progressivism from educational progressivism.
It's a historical accident that the two were joined in the 20s. But there's no logic
to it, and some minority leaders have begun to speak out against its negative consequences.
To assume that rigorous education is anti-minority is the opposite of the truth,
as mindless as saying that whole language is Democratic and phonics is Republican.(Laughter.)
(Technical problem -- lost last few lines)
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