Friday, May 28, 2010

The Knowledge Deficit, by E.D. Hirsch, Jr.

I heard about Core Curriculum from TJE and really liked it.  I managed to get a copy of 'What your First Grader Needs Know' at the thrift store for $2 and then the 'What your Third Grader Needs to Know' for 10 cents at a garage sale. Woo hoo! :)   I'll keep my eyes out for the whole series.  I don't think they are worth full price for us, but definitely a great resource to have for $2 or 10 cents! :)   I also bought 'Books to Build On' through half.com for $6 including shipping.  I think they are great resources for the kids' and I's education through classics and mentors.  The Books to Build on is a list of books for grades kindergarten to 6th grade.   I was hoping it was for adults also-but it was not.



Having bought a few books by E.D. Hirsch and really being impressed by them, I decided I should try to learn more about the author and his views on education in general.  So I found 'The Knowledge Deficit' by E.D. Hirsch, Jr at the library and read it. 

I really enjoyed the first part of the book.  His views on why a well rounded education is important in regards to reading was very eye opening for me.  He makes a really good point.  He differentiates between decoding the printed marks and decoding the actual language. 

"It is not mainly comprehension strategies that young children lack in comprehending texts but knowledge-knowledge of formal language conventions and knowledge of the world."

"Children are not less intelligent then adults, they are just less well informed."

He postulates (I've taken a fancy to that word for some reason-I hope I'm using it right)  that while phonics are of utmost necessity, they only help in sounding out words.  Actual reading comprehension can only happen as one learns about the world around oneself, history, etc.  You can be the fastest reader in the world, but if you don't know what hockey is, you could read a whole article on the sport and comprehend nothing.


He gives a number of examples of printed words, followed by a list of necessary pre-existing knowledge necessary to understand it.  Little things that we take for granted, but many people, esp from different cultures, would not know and therefore would not be able to make sense of the paragraph. One example "Jones sacrificed and knocked in a run."  To someone who does not know about baseball, that would be a completely useless statement.  It could be taken, with some stretch of the imagination, to mean just about anything.  A lot of pre-existing knowledge has to be already present to understand that sentence.  Obvious, but fascinating to me.  Trying to read about Cricket completely baffles me.  I can read the words, but have NO idea what they mean.  Whereas most people from England would be confused by the above statement on baseball, but fully understand a similar statement on cricket.  Ability to read phonics, while necessary, is not helpful in those circumstances.  A general knowledge of the subject, however, is of utmost importance.


One point he makes is that most 'language' taught in schools today is a Standard English that is very simple and practical.  We use a much more varied vocabulary in writing then we do in speech.  And that is so true!  I will write things even here (like postulate) that I would not generally use in speech.  And when you read older 'classics' that becomes even more true.

I have to tell you, since starting to read 'classics' (Moby Dick, Black Beauty (both Illustrated Classics), Ms. Pickerell, Peter Burgess and Shel Silverstein lately), my children's vocabulary has definitely increased.  I love hearing them use words and phrases not generally heard from children. And they are most often used correctly. It's too cute and makes mama proud. 

He also made the point that learning phonics does not come 'natural' to a person.  I think some ways of teaching phonics are better then others, but it's not like learning to walk or talk, where it comes naturally without any prompting.  It must be done intentionally.

Where I disagree with him is his politics and social agenda.  To be fair, he sees a public school system that is badly failing it's students, and the negative social impact that is having on the country.  And he has spent much of his life researching how best to remedy that.  And on a large-scale, he may have come up with some fabulous solutions.  However, I personally believe that large-scale reform is seldom how God chooses to work. I believe that what must happen for America to become strong and great again, is for families to raise up children who are intelligent, thinkers, problem-solvers and people of high moral standards (preferably Christian, but history has shown that not to be of utmost necessity).  So, I do not agree with his social agendas, but I am able to take what he has learned and use it to help me best educate myself and my own children.

That is how he happened to come up with the 'What your __ Grader Needs to Know' series.  He thinks it should be required basic knowledge for each grade in schools across the US.  They do seem to give a good, thorough glimpse of classics in all subjects, as well as general info.  They really read much like a text book, but are meant to be used as guides. I think they would make a fabulous curriculum for a homeschooler.  Except I would (and plan on) using the original works as much as possible rather then the brief synopsis he gives in the books. He states in the beginning of the books that if you were to read it for 20 minutes a day, 180 days a year (the typical school calendar), you would read through it 3 times and the child would have an excellent education.

What I take from his book(s) on a practical level, is that I need to continue to give my children the liberal, classics-based education that I already desire and intend to give them (and myself).  However, I also realized that reading books that are too far beyond our scope of knowledge is not helpful. I need to work up to them.  Reading books on subjects that are at our own level and continually working our way toward more difficult, advanced and comprehensive books on all subjects.  I shouldn't feel guilty for not being able to read and understand Isaac Newton, but rather to make it my goal to get to where I CAN read him and not only understand, but enjoy what he has to teach me.

It was a good reality check for me.  I was trying to read a book on mathematics, Infinite Ascent by David Berlinski.  It was totally beyond my scope of comprehension and current math knowledge. At first I was determined to push through, but then I realized it was a futile effort. I was not learning anything from it and my time would be better spent reading through a less involved, less 'assumed knowledge necessary' mathematics book (so I started 'How Math Explains the World' instead-so far, so good).    But, I do hope to be able to read that book someday and have it make sense.  Boy will I be proud!

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