Cal State

1999 Conference on Standards-Based K-12 Education

California State University Northridge

Transcript of E.D. Hirsch, Jr.
(edited by the speaker)
biography of speaker


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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 and progressives.

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 chickens.

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 instruction sheet.

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 alphabetic writing.

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 do?

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. (Applause).

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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Contact the organizers

Postal and telephone information:

1999 Conference on Standards-Based K12 Education

College of Science and Mathematics

California State University Northridge

18111 Nordhoff St.

Northridge CA 91330-8235

Telephone: (Dr. Klein: 818-677-7792)

FAX: 818-677-3634 (Attn: David Klein)