On Friday, March 22, E. D. Hirsch turns 85. He’s celebrating with a typical week of researching ideas for increasing educational equity, being interviewed, writing, and spending time with family. I’m celebrating by rereading many of his books and essays—and sharing the highlights in a series of posts. Please join the festivities by adding warm birthday wishes, and your favorite Hirsch quotes, in the comments.
To kick off this fête, here’s a selection from The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them, which Hirsch thinks is his most effective attempt to make the case for a knowledge-building curriculum. Drawn from pages 152 – 158,* this addresses the question “What Is Higher-Order Thinking?”
Two traditions in cognitive psychology are useful for understanding the nature of the critical-thinking, problem-solving skills that we wish to develop in our students. One tradition has studied the characteristic differences between expert and novice thinking, sometimes with the practical goal of making novices think more like experts as fast possible. Another tradition has investigated the differences between accurate and inaccurate thinking of the everyday newspaper-reading, bargain-hunting sort that all of us must engage in as nonexperts. Both sorts of study converge on the conclusion that, once basic underlying skills have been automated, the almost universal feature of reliable higher-order thinking about any subject of problem is the possession of a broad, well-integrated base of background knowledge relevant to the subject. This sounds suspiciously like plain common sense (i.e., accurate everyday thinking), but the findings entail certain illuminating complexities and details that are worth contemplating. Moreover, since the findings run counter to prevailing fact-disparaging slogans of education reform, it will be strategically useful to sketch briefly what research has disclosed about the knowledge-based character of higher-order thinking.
The argument used by educators to disparage “merely” factual knowledge and to elevate abstract, formal principles of thought consists in the claim that knowledge is changing so rapidly that specific information is outmoded almost as soon as it has been learned. This claim goes back at least as far as Kilpatrick’s Foundations of Method (1925). It gains its apparent plausibility from the observation that science and technology have advanced at a great rate in this century, making scientific and technological obsolescence a common feature of modern life. The argument assumes that there is an analogy between technological and intellectual obsolescence. Educators in this tradition shore up that analogy with the further claim that factual knowledge has become a futility because of the ever-growing quantity of new facts. The great cascade of information now flowing over the information highway makes it pointless to accumulate odd bits of data. How, after all, do you know which bits are going to endure? It is much more efficient for all students to spend time acquiring techniques for organizing, analyzing, and accessing this perpetual Niagara of information.
Like the tool metaphor for education, the model of acquiring processing techniques that would be permanently useful—as contrasted with acquiring mere facts that are soon obsolete—would be highly attractive if it happened to be workable and true. But the picture of higher thinking skills as consisting of all-purpose processing and accessing techniques is not just a partly inadequate metaphor—it is a totally misleading model of the way higher-order thinking actually works. Higher thought does not apply formal techniques to looked-up data; rather, it deploys diverse relevant cues, estimates, and analyses from preexisting knowledge. The method of applying formal techniques to looked-up data is precisely the inept and unreliable problem-solving device used by novices. As a model of real-world higher-order thinking, the picture is not simply inaccurate—it reverses the realities. It describes the lower-order thinking of novices, not the higher-order thinking of experts.
A useful illustration of the point is presented by Jill Larkin and Ruth Chabay in a study of the ways in which novices and experts go about solving a simple physics problem. The problem Larkin and Chabay set up is (in simple terms) to find out how much friction there is between a sled and the snow-covered ground when a girl is pulling her little brother through the snow at a constant rate. The brother and the sled together weight 50 pounds. The sister is pulling with a force of 10 pounds, and she pulls the rope at an angle of 30 degrees from the horizontal. What is the coefficient of friction? The typical novice tries to solve the problem by applying formal equations that can be looked up…. The [resulting] answer is wrong, not because the equation or math is wrong but because the novice does not know enough about real-world physics to know how to connect the formula to the problem….
The expert physicist goes about the problem differently. He or she analyzes the critical components of the situation before looking up equations, and makes two critical observations before even bothering with numbers. The first observation is that the sled is going at a constant speed, so that, in effect, there is no net residue of forces acting on the sled; there is an exact balance between the force exerted horizontally by the girl’s pull and he force exerted against that pull by friction. If there had been some difference in the two forces, then the sled would speed up or slow down. So the answer has got to be that the friction is exactly equal to the horizontal component of the force exerted by the girl. The physicist also sees that since the rope is pulled at 30 degrees, part of the girl’s 10 pounds of force is vertical. The answer is going to be that the friction equals the horizontal force of the girl’s pull, which is going to be that 10 pounds minus its vertical component. The structure of the answer is solved on the basis of multiple cues and relevant knowledge, before any formulas are looked up and applied. Larkin and Chabay make the following comment (which is much more to our purpose than the details of the physics involved):
Scientists’ problem solving starts with redescribing the problem in terms of the powerful concepts of their discipline. Because the concepts are richly connected with each other, the redescribed problem allows cross checking among inferences to avoid errors. [My emphasis.]
An important feature of higher-order thinking is this “cross checking among inferences,” based on a number of “richly connected” concepts. In higher-order thinking, we situate a problem in mental space on analogy with the way we situate ourselves in a physical space—through a process of cross-checking or triangulation among relevant guideposts in our landscape of preexisting knowledge. If we look at a problem from a couple of different angles, using a couple of different cues, and if our different estimates converge, we can gain confidence in our analysis and can proceed with confidence. If, on the other hand, there is some dissonance or conflict between our cues, then warning signals go up and we figure out which approach is more probable or fruitful. The procedure is clearly a very different and far more reliable mode of thinking than the error-prone method of applying formal techniques to looked-up data.
The example also illustrates the implausibility of the claim that school-based information quickly grows outdated. How outmoded will the knowledge used to solve the sled problem become? A philosopher of science, Nicholas Rescher, once observed that the latest science is in a sense the least reliable science, because, being on the frontier, it is always in dispute with other, rival theories—any of which may emerge victorious. Accordingly, reasoned Rescher, the most reliable physics is “stone-age physics”: if you throw the rock up, it is going to come down. For most problems that require critical thought by the ordinary person regarding ethics, politics, history, and even technology, the most needed knowledge is usually rather basic, long-lived, and slow to change. True, just as physics is under revision at the frontier, so American history before the Civil War is constantly under revision in certain details (e.g., did Abraham Lincoln have an affair with Ann Rutledge?). But behind the ever-changing front lines, there is a body of reliable knowledge which has not changed, and will not change very much, and which serves very well as a landscape to orient us in mental space. It is true that, over time, the content of the most significant and useful background knowledge for today’s world does change. But I have never seen a carefully reasoned defense of the repeated assertion that, in the new age, factual knowledge is changing so fast as to make the learning of significant information useless. Probably, no carefully reasoned defense of this mindless claim could be mounted….
The key trait to remember about higher-order thinking is its mixed character, consisting of operational facility and domain-specific knowledge….
The best research on this subject shows that neither fact-filled memorization nor large conceptual generalizations are effective modes of education for higher-order thinking about the complexities of the modern world. On the other hand, it has been shown that accurate factual estimates are necessary for understanding many issues. Norman Brown and Robert Siegler summarize the underlying problem for modern education:
Faced with the issue of how to inculcate such information, educators have oscillated between two approaches. One has been to require students to memorize large numbers of quantitative facts. The other has been to deemphasize dates, magnitudes, and other quantities, and to focus on understanding qualitative relations. Each of these approaches has major drawbacks, however…. There are just too many such facts for anyone to memorize a high percentage of them. On the other hand, it is difficult if not impossible to acquire more than a superficial understanding of a domain without some degree of quantitative sophistication about it.
The breadth-depth issue will always be with us, and will always require compromises and common sense….
Research has demonstrated that the teaching of a generous number of carefully chosen exemplary facts within a meaningful explanatory context is a better method for inducing insightful thinking than is any proposed alternative….
This finding has strong implications for curriculum making. The conclusion from cognitive research shows that there is an unavoidable interdependence between relational and factual knowledge, and that teaching a broad range of knowledge is essential to effective thinking both within domains and among domains….
A wide range of knowledge and a broad vocabulary supply entry wedges into unfamiliar domains, thus truly enabling “lifelong learning,” as well as the attainment of new knowledge and greater depth as needed. The unmistakable implication for modern education is that, instead of constantly deferring the introduction of challenging and extensive knowledge, we need to be taking the opposite tack by increasing both the challenge and the breadth of early education.
* For the endnotes, please refer to the book.
You may also be interested in the other posts in this birthday retrospective: