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E.D. Hirsch and Cultural Literacy

Professor E.D. Hirsch


'We need to see the reading comprehension problem for what it primarily is—a knowledge problem. There is no way around the need for children to gain broad general knowledge in order to gain broad general proficiency in reading.' —E.D. Hirsch, Jr.

Core Knowledge UK is based on the premise that 'knowledge builds on knowledge' and that the most important educational objectives—reading comprehension, critical thinking and problem-solving—are functions of the breadth and depth of our knowledge.

In order to thrive in a free and democratic society, children must secure a shared, foundational knowledge necessary to exercise effective citizenship. E.D. Hirsch, Jr. (pictured) recognised this concept after his experience as professor emeritus of education and humanities at the University of Virginia. Arising from his concerns about educational inequalities, Professor Hirsch founded the Core Knowledge Foundation and developed his groundbreaking concept of cultural literacy.

Cultural literacy is Professor Hirsch's idea that reading comprehension requires not just formal decoding skills but also wide-ranging background knowledge. He published his work on this subject in a book titled Cultural Literacy. For more than two decades, in books, articles and lectures, Professor Hirsch has promoted Core Knowledge and has argued passionately that schools should teach a highly specific, knowledge-based curriculum that allows children to understand things writers and speakers take for granted: knowledge that allows them to participate in democratic life.

Promoting content knowledge as a way of achieving 'cultural literacy.'

The Core Knowledge curriculum is highly successful in schools housed within some of America's toughest neighbourhoods. They boast higher literacy rates, greater pupil and parent engagement and make a significant contribution to closing educational inequality gaps.

Just as in America, for decades there has been no consensus about how or what to teach children in Britain. There's been a focus on skill-based learning, in lieu of knowledge, which is often dismissed as 'rote learning' and irrelevant. Professor Hirsch, who inspired the Core Knowledge curriculum, was among the first to see that the retreat from knowledge was misguided. Above all, he showed that to compare 'knowledge' with 'thinking skills' was to make a false contrast. They are not mutually exclusive alternatives. Knowledge does not get in the way of reasoning: it's what we reason with.

Cognitive science tells us that teaching knowledge is the necessary partner critical to achieving culturally literate citizens who are able to meaningfully participate in democratic life. The success of the Core Knowledge curriculum and the ethos embraced by the Core Knowledge Foundation—educational excellence and equity for all children—is the motivation for Civitas' adaptation of their knowledge-rich curriculum for schools in the UK.

Try the Cultural Literacy Activity to experience the importance of having a strong background of content knowledge.