Grant Wiggins Doesn’t Quite Understand E. D. Hirsch

by Guest Blogger
October 16th, 2013

By Harry Webb

This post originally appeared on Webs of Substance, a blog on educational research.

In his latest blog post, Grant Wiggins expresses his frustration at the recent writings of E. D. Hirsch, Jr. It is unsurprising that Wiggins would be irritated by Hirsch: Since the publication of Cultural Literacy in 1987, Hirsch has been an annoyance to the education establishment, particularly in the US. And now, with the adoption of the Hirsch’s Core Knowledge curriculum by many new charter schools, American education can no longer marginalize Hirsch’s message. His star is in the ascendant.

Of all the logical fallacies, the Straw Man seems to be Wiggins’ favorite. He mentions it three times in the blog post and again in response to comments. The Straw Man that Wiggins thinks he has detected is the idea that there are people who will deny the role of factual knowledge in reading comprehension. Indeed, Wiggins asks, “Would Hirsch please quote someone who does deny it, instead of setting up his straw man?”

A Straw Man

A Straw Man

I have said before that I don’t know of anyone who would outright condemn the acquisition of all forms of knowledge. The game is played much more subtly than that. Instead, the role of knowledge acquisition is diminished. It is made to seem inferior to other goals of education such as training in skills of various forms. It is this that I understand Hirsch to be unhappy about.

Wiggins targets Hirsch’s use of assertions. However, Hirsch does draw upon some evidence to support his claims. The amount of time, for instance, that has been given over to English Language Arts instruction increased with the introduction the NCLB act and without a transformative effect on reading proficiency. And this increase has come at the cost of subjects such as social studies, science, art and music. Hirsch’s view is that instruction in specific reading skills and strategies has limited effect on improving reading. He views the acquisition of broad background knowledge is far more important and this view certainly has some support from the realm of cognitive science.

This means that, according to Hirsch, the NCLB-led distortion of the curriculum is doubly dangerous. Not only is it likely to lead to redundant skill-based reading instruction in those additional English Language Arts lessons, it will also cut the exposure to content knowledge in social studies, science, art and music. So, you see, I think that Hirsch has a point.

I have read The Knowledge Deficit by Hirsch and I am attracted to his thesis on how we have arrived at this point. To paraphrase, Hirsch thinks that the educational establishment decided that the mere transmission of knowledge was not a suitable goal of education. However, once this goal is removed then another has to be found. Hirsch views this as the reason for a focus on transferable skills such as reading comprehension skills or higher-order thinking skills. If these skills can be identified and taught then we have a new role for education.

I am attracted to Hirsch’s thesis because it chimes with my own experience. In the very first lecture at my school of education, I was introduced to a misreading of Plutarch, the gist of which was to warn us all that we were not to see our role as to fill-up students with knowledge. Ever since, this has been reinforced in many and varied ways; I have even attended an education research conference where speaker after speaker derided  ”transmission” teaching as if we would all accept this perspective without question. No, you will not find anyone who will completely deny the role of factual knowledge in reading or any other endeavor; to do so would be absurd. However, you will find plenty who will downplay it.

In fact, this is exactly what Wiggins and his co-author Jay McTighe do in their book, Understanding by Design.

“To know which fact to use when requires more than another fact. It requires understanding – insight into essentials, purposes, audience, strategy, and tactics. Drill and direct instruction can develop discrete skills and facts into automaticity (knowing “by heart”), but they cannot make us truly able.”

There is much to unpack here. Knowledge is reduced to facts and facts, by definition, have to be disconnected and known “by heart” or without understanding. Understanding comes not from acquiring more knowledge – the facts that link the facts – but by some spookier kind of thing; insight. Finally, drill and direct instruction cannot make us truly able.

The first thing to note is that this is a string of assertions. I have not removed the footnotes when quoting this passage; there simply aren’t any. At a minimum, the point about direct instruction requires support. I am aware of no evidence that direct instruction leads to an inferior form of learning than any other approach, despite the many researchers who would like to demonstrate it. I suspect that the evidence is not quoted because there is no evidence.

In the same chapter, Wiggins and McTighe go on to draw-up a table to distinguish “knowledge” from “understanding,” just in case we were not clear. Knowledge is “the facts” whereas understanding is “the meaning of the facts.” This is a little odd; can we not know the meaning of the facts? Further, knowledge is, “a body of coherent facts” whereas understanding is, “the ‘theory’ that provides coherence and meaning to those facts.” The coup de grace is in the final pair of statements; knowledge is, “I respond on cue with what I know” whereas understanding is, “I judge when to and when not to use what I know.”

Clearly, understanding is a superior kind of thing to knowledge. Knowledge just consists of a discrete series of facts that children bark on cue, probably in the context of some dismal drill- or direct-instruction-based lesson. It is easy to see why teachers would not want to focus on the acquisition of knowledge if we are going to define it in these terms.

Of course, Wiggins is not alone in these views. Even back in 1916, Cubberley made a similar contrast in “Public School Administration.” According to Diane Ravitch:

“When it came to the curriculum, he authoritatively contrasted two approaches: One was ‘the knowledge curriculum’ which he described in highly pejorative terms: ‘Facts, often of no particular importance themselves, are taught, memorized and tested for, to be forgotten as soon as the school-grade need for them has passed.’ The opposite of this dreary approach was ‘the development type of course,’ in which ‘knowledge is conceived of as a life experience and inner conviction and not as the memorization of the accumulated knowledge of the past,’ Using the latter approach, school would change from a place in which children prepare for life by learning traditional subjects to one in which children live life.”

So, you see, the tradition of devaluing knowledge, of denying that understanding is a form of knowledge, of linking knowledge to pure rote learning; this is an old tradition.

In this context, I am glad that there is someone like Hirsch out there, arguing for the value of content knowledge. His is a perfectly valid argument that needs to be more widely heard.



  1. Thanks for the subtle distinction you are making. I just finished a graduate teaching program where factual knowledge was overtly dismissed by one teacher. We talked about issues of race, gender identity, sexual harassment, etc. The teacher actually said, “don’t you see how the trivial the content of subjects is compared to these all-important issues.”

    If you asked him if he was suggesting that we shouldn’t be teaching students algebra, he would say “of course not” but somehow he seemed to not comprehend the confused, contradictory nature of his assertions.

    The current ideologues (as opposed to educators) that control public education certainly can’t completely dismiss subject matter content; they would lose all credibility. The way they accomplish their true mission is to denigrate it and marginalize it.

    Comment by Jim — October 16, 2013 @ 11:20 am

  2. As I pay attention to what is said and written about education I keep thinking of the fable of the blind men and the elephant. This person is only looking at the leg, this other only at the tail, and so on. The educational equivalent of the whole elephant is to say that school is the transmission of information. Children need to get information about what the world is. And giving them a good common foundation of information about the world is the function of school, especially the elementary years. (In secondary education it becomes possible to talk of individualizing studies, even before college.)

    And of course, when school does transmit this information and does it to the best of human ability, it also provides many other things for the intellectual, emotional, and personal growth of children, because it provides them in context, not in isolation, as does the “teaching” of skills.

    Hirsch describes what it means to look at the whole elephant. When he says, for example, that reading well depends on background knowledge, he is describing one way that two parts work together in cooperation for good results. He has pointed out that “teaching” skills is pure process, but he did not therefore condemn process. He shows how process and content work together.

    Providing a schooling of substantial content about the world does not inevitably “solve” all the problems that can confront children and the adults they will become. But it is doing what school can do, and is much more likely to provide the understanding and skills (or habits) that can support individuals when dealing with problems than does the process-only approach.

    Comment by Susan Toth — October 17, 2013 @ 9:16 am

  3. It’s especially frustrating that supporters of skill-based instruction (in reading especially) tend to compare the worst examples of direct instruction that they can imagine (memorization of unrelated facts to be forgotten after the test) with an idealized version of helping children attain critical thinking and global understanding. They should be called out on this, since so many classrooms activities that purport to support those goals are instead formless bull sessions with students encouraged to offer opinions on all matter of subjects that they don’t have the knowledge background to address.

    Comment by EB — October 19, 2013 @ 9:48 am

  4. What I would like to see is what the actual educational was of those that advocate all these skill drills. I am two minds either they just had awful teachers that taught a lot of classical content in an awful way and just have gone the opposite direction not realizing how important it was to their actual life learning or if they just can’t appreciate what it is like to not grow up in a content rich environment that they miss how important it is. Sometimes too much privilege causes one to miss all that takes place downstairs.

    Comment by DC Parent — October 19, 2013 @ 11:03 pm

  5. I’ve had a similar experience as Jim. My teacher of Maryland’s required pedagogy class for certification cannot go one session without telling us that teaching content is unnecessary because we can just Google what we don’t know.

    Comment by Geena — October 29, 2013 @ 10:34 am

  6. If you read Gerald Graff on the history of education and other authors, the bias against “mere erudition” came as a reaction against German scholarship (along with German militarism) immediately before and around the time of World War I. It was felt that what was needed was a curriculum that would reinforce a national sentiment of patriotic Anglo-Americanism along with an emphasis on moral development. Character was to be privileged over, say, word origins.

    The object was to socialize new immigrants to think of themselves as Americans, rather than as Germans or Central Europeans, or heaven forfend, Marxists (Don’t forget that before World War I, Germans were by far the largest immigrant group and Jews and Germans tended to be lumped together.). Everything was to be subordinated to this goal. Foreign and classical languages were to be downplayed, as was medieval lit., which had been thought important during the Romantic era. For one thing, “mere erudition” made the professors feel intimidated. For another, a new class of wealthy students was filling the universities, and they were more interested in sports and drinking than in studying. Naturally, the movement against “erudition” went a little too far.

    Comment by Harold — November 10, 2013 @ 7:01 pm

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