Michael Gove’s planned national curriculum, heavily influenced by American reformer E.D. Hirsch, came under strong attack over the weekend. Critics claim that it will de-professionalise teachers. NUT activists and their allies insist that teachers will have to abandon the ideas that were prevalent when they were trained, and teach in a different way, which risks alienating and demoralising them.

There are good reasons for being concerned about the de-professionalisation of teachers, but Hirsch’s curriculum for the UK is not one of them. On the contrary, his curriculum, found in books such as What Your Year 3 Child Needs to Know, is designed to encourage the renewal of teaching as a vocation. The UK publisher, Civitas, accepts that teachers have been de-professionalised in the last decade or so, and is promoting Hirsch’s books as a solution.

Two main forces have contributed to the de-professionalisation of teaching: the politicisation of performance targets; and the impact of falsely named ‘progressive’ education that assigns a diminished role to teachers. Assessment is useful as a guide to teachers, parents and pupils about how much young people have learnt. However, assessment became dysfunctional in the last few years because it began to be used as a measure of the success or failure of the ruling political party. Instead of being an aid to the classroom teacher, Key Stage 2 tests and GCSEs became measures of the government’s achievements. Now it is generally accepted that testing regimes became corrupted. An official report in June 2011, by Lord Bew, recognised that narrow ‘drilling’ had become common, squeezing out real learning and denying children a broad education. Lesson time in primary schools was used to rehearse answers instead of deepening and extending knowledge. The focus on results in English and maths meant that other subjects were neglected.

Critics of Hirsch have not realised that his work is an alternative to rehearsal and drilling, not an extension of it. Their mistake has been to seize upon a superficial resemblance between learning facts to acquire fluency or as an aid to applying skills, and the rehearsal of ‘answers without understanding’ purely for the sake of passing a test. Cramming for exams is not the same as equipping the memory with useful information that will aid future understanding. Learning times tables, for example, involves memorisation in order to increase fluency in the use of numbers. It is about acquiring knowledge to make analysis and critical thinking possible.

The second cause of de-professionalisation has been the continued influence of academic theories from the 1970s and earlier that were hostile to teaching. Many young teachers are still being taught that lessons should be 10 per cent the teacher and 90 per cent the children. Teachers find themselves being criticised for being ‘too didactic’, which is a bit like criticising a doctor for being ‘too medical’. There were two sources for these attitudes: child development theories and political theories that saw teaching as no more than a kind of authoritarianism.

Following work in the 1930s by Swiss academic, Jean Piaget, academics in the 1960s such as Laurence Kohlberg described children as undergoing stages of development. The stages can be simplified into three groups: the pre-conventional, the conventional, and the post-conventional. The conventional stage involves outward compliance with school rules without real moral conviction. It was common to argue that, if you instruct children, you freeze them at the conventional stage and prevent them moving to the post-conventional stage, when they would be moral agents in their own right. Parents and teachers, in this view, were obstacles to development. If you want children to learn about society, let them play games and construct moral principles for themselves. Don’t give them lectures on right and wrong.

This work had the authority of social science behind it and was reinforced by writers such as Ivan Illich. In books such as Deschooling Society (1971), he argued that formal schooling was harmful: ‘Pupils … are simply instructed by an authoritarian teaching regime and, to be successful, must conform to its rules. Real learning, however, is not the result of instruction … most learning requires no teacher.’

Carl Rogers, author of Freedom to Learn (1969), was perhaps the most influential of all. Teaching was ‘all based upon a distrust of the student’. The attitude of teachers was: ‘Don’t trust him to follow his own leads; guide him; tell him what to do; tell him what he should think; tell him what he should learn’. Consequently, argued Rogers, ‘at the very age when he should be developing adult characteristics of choice and decision making … he is, instead, regimented and shoved into a curriculum, whether it fits him or not.’

Not everyone accepted the arguments of these writers, but they lie behind the approach that turns the teacher into a facilitator rather than the custodian of useful knowledge and skills that can be passed on.

We now know that theories which devalue the teacher are especially harmful to children from poor backgrounds.  The bottom quarter of young people, whether defined by their school attainment, or by their parents’ income, are badly served by ‘progressive’ methods. For example, about 25 per cent of children each year have not been achieving Level 4 at age 11 in both English and maths, which means they are ill-equipped to benefit from secondary education.

Hirsch’s core knowledge curriculum is designed so that every child from every background can benefit. It represents what children from all social groups can be taught. And it is based on the belief that teaching is a vocation. Teachers are custodians of the best interests of children. Their role is not to facilitate learning defined by the children themselves as interesting or relevant to their lives. The teacher’s calling is to open up new possibilities that children simply don’t know about. If they come from homes with lots of books and computers and educated parents, they may get enough help to overcome the inadequacies of a bad school, but if they rely almost entirely on the school for knowledge and skills, they will fall behind and stay there.

A well-run school, even when children are drawn primarily from poor backgrounds, can make a vast difference. That is why the curriculum matters. Content-rich education offers a broad curriculum for every child. Expectations are high. They are not just taught the three Rs but a wide array of subjects to prepare for modern life. Out of six chapters in Hirsch’s UK primary school curriculum, one is on the visual arts and one on music.

Trade union activists assume that to be a professional is be autonomous, essentially free to do as you wish. But teaching is not only a vocation, which implies dedication to bringing out the best in every child, it also has much in common with the ‘learned professions’, occupations that are constantly open to the discoveries of science or experience. No true professional would resent having to abandon ideas taught in early training. The self-conception of the teacher as a learned professional is of someone constantly developing a better understanding of how best to teach and what to teach. It’s normal to be asked to do things differently because earlier ideas have been discredited by practical experience or the sciences. This idea of the learned professional is closely linked to autonomy. But it does not mean never having to change your ways unless you choose to; it means being guided by an independent search for the truth and being willing to change pre-conceptions when necessary.

True professionals do not object to applying their craft in a different way when new methods have been shown to be more effective. Teachers in New York, for example, have begun to alter their techniques after carefully evaluating two approaches to teaching English. Hirsch’s work was recently subject to a rigorous trial in New York. For three years from 2008 to 2011, a pilot program tracked the reading ability of 1,000 pupils at 20 New York City schools. They were followed from age 5 until age 8. Half of the schools used a curriculum designed by Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Foundation and the other 10 mainly used a programme called ‘balanced literacy’. The study found that 8 year-olds who were taught to read using the Core Knowledge programme scored significantly higher on reading comprehension tests. For each of the three years, Core Knowledge students had greater 12-month gains than their peers in the other ten schools. The biggest gap opened up in the first year of the programme.

Under the ‘balanced literacy’ approach, used by seven of the ten comparison schools, children were encouraged to develop a love of reading by choosing books of interest to them. Teachers avoided direct instruction of children and focused on overseeing them while they worked. The Core Knowledge programme was based on reading non-fiction books. Children also read fiction, but they were expected to read about topics such as the weather, the solar system, ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia and to be able to discuss each subject in class. The ‘balanced literacy’ method, which claimed to encourage creativity, did not help children to improve their ability to read a text, understand what it said, and explain what they had learnt in their own words.

Teachers who are concerned about de-professionalisation during the last few years have a strong case, but knowledge-rich education is not their enemy. It offers the best hope for the renewal of the ideal of teaching as one of the highest callings.

David Green is Director of Civitas, which is publishing E.D. Hirsch’s primary school curriculum in the UK.

Tags: Education, Michael Gove, Schools, Teaching, Trade Unions