In 1978, educator and academic Eric Hirsch was teaching an English class in a community college in Richmond, Va., when he noticed that, despite the pupil’s reading ability being on a par with university students, they struggled to understand a passage about General Lee’s surrender to General Grant at Appomattox.
Hirsch concluded that the background knowledge and shared set of cultural facts he promoted through his “Cultural Literacy” book were important, not for the sake of knowledge but because “a shared intellectual landscape was all-important in empowering students to read and write richly.”
In the U.K., the educational landscape is changing. A new system has been introduced by the central government, which allows state-run schools to apply for academy status, meaning they will have direct funding from the government and can gain greater powers over their own curriculum and teaching methods.
A free school has the same powers and funding, but is a new institution established with sponsorship from charities, faith groups or even parent groups.
Education Minister John Nash and his wife Caroline Nash have together established Future, a charity which has taken an active role in sponsoring several academies in London.
Through Future, Caroline helped establish The Curriculum Centre, a charitable organization that designs a strict schedule of learning, based on the thought processes of Hirsch and Dan Willingham, to better serve Future academies.
The emphasis of these teaching methods is on the value of knowledge-based learning rather than purely skill-based exercises, which are taught without knowledge-based content.
Applying the theory
In my classroom, I’ve found some children to be hard to control and easily distracted. This has only been aggravated by workgroup-based activities, which rely on the children to interact unsupervised by the teacher.
For these classes, I’ve taken the key points of learning from the curriculum and have drawn up a list of salient facts which I felt were crucial to the syllabus.
By taking a more authoritative figure at the front of the classroom, it made it easier for me to control the pupils but also meant they were more focused on learning than discussing unrelated topics in the workgroups.
The key, I’ve found, is to find examples and points in the learning scheme which help to explain the issues rather than relying on the children to come up with the answers without relevant structure to their discussion.
By marrying the two educational theories, which have long been treated as mutually exclusive, students seem more capable of learning knowledge and then applying that knowledge to the outside world.
In terms of results, Pimlico Academy (the first school to be sponsored by Future) managed to achieve a 23%increase of students achieving A -C grades at GCSE level (aged 16 years old).
Prior to Caroline Nash’s involvement, the school had been placed into “special measures” by the U.K. school inspection body, OFSTED, meaning it risked being closed down due to poor performance.
Two years later, and buoyed by the turn around in exam results, the academy was awarded with “Outstanding” — the highest achievable grade for a school in Britain.
By combining the theologies of two leading U.S. scholars and applying them within the British education system, Caroline Nash and her colleagues have been able to create a methodology which remains true to both schools of thought but in a more flexible and applicable way.
As teachers, by being less rigid in our approach to the way we teach, we can incorporate the positive aspects from seemingly opposing education styles to better meet the needs of the student.
If we can emulate this thought process in American classrooms, then we stand a better chance of finding ways to teach difficult students in engaging ways while ensuring curriculum requirements are met.
Linda Green is a retired English literature teacher from the New York area. She currently teaches as a substitute teacher while writing her book “Educational philosophies from around the World.” She has vast experience in both U.S. and U.K. education systems.