Apparently You Can’t Teach Critical Thinking

Read anything from the Core Knowledge Curriculum and you’ll be introduced to what E.D. Hirsch thinks are the greatest failings a public school system can make, namely any decision made that follows beliefs in a child’s natural development, individuality, and the pursuit of “critical thinking.” Having graduated from teachers’ college within the last decade, I think it’s safe to say that these beliefs are still upheld, which is why I found Hirsch’s work so intriguing. It challenged my thoughts around education on all fronts, yet by the end of his work, Why Knowledge Matters, a collection of essays exploring what necessitates good school curricula, I found myself agreeing with many of his points.

What challenged me most was Hirsch’s decisive claim that it is impossible to teach “skills” such as critical thinking or reading comprehension. This is frightening, considering that he points at precisely what the bulk of language arts objectives look and sound like. Even from grades K – 12 in Alberta, our curriculum goals include things such as “use textual cues,” or “construct meaning from texts,” but fails to specify literature or content. Yet Hirsch argues that critical thinking or textual understanding in any given field relies not on having said skill but, instead, on content knowledge.

He draws this conclusion from multiple studies, including Recht-Leslie (1998), Schneider et al. (1999), and Arya et al. (2011). Briefly, each study tested reading comprehension outcomes of low-performing and high-performing groups (in the Schneider et al. case, they tested low-IQ versus high-IQ students). What each study found was that when the text’s content topic was familiar to a group (baseball, for example), the group performed well regardless of how text complexity or how they typically performed in reading. Along the same line, when the text discussed something unfamiliar to the group, the group performed poorly, regardless of their typically high scores or high IQ.

Indeed, instead of learning to “use textual cues” or “construct meaning from texts” (re: Alberta’s curriculum), Hirsch determines that

The more we know about the topic, the more accurate will be our guesses about the text’s meaning (90).

Hirsch, E.D. (2016). Why knowledge matters: Rescuing our children from failed educational theories. Harvard Education Press.

Domain knowledge is essential to understanding a text, and so Hirsch reasons that an accomplished reader is someone who has a well-rounded knowledge, especially in literacy. By mandating literature and other key components of content across a country (Hirsch is addressing America, in particular), curriculum writers can ensure that children are well-equipped to understand a broad variety of texts no matter where their school is located. This last point is especially important, Hirsch says, if we are to build an education system that places students on as much of an equal footing as possible when they graduate (as opposed to well-off communities producing better educated students, or the opposite).

If every teacher catered to their students, Hirsch argues, it results in the left-hand image (equality), whereas teaching the same texts, thereby ensuring the same level of cultural literacy, is what ensures even footing for all (equity).
Image from King University Online
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One argument against this that comes to mind is that, by teaching a rigid set of literature to students without regard for their personal background, culture, or community, teachers risk losing their students’ interests. Yet this is a shallow argument; it is the teacher’s job to connect the student to the content. Furthermore, Hirsch argues, if we limit students only to what we believe they will enjoy, we are doing students a grave disservice. First, they may not learn new ways of understanding, if we always cater to what we think they’ll easily accept, and second, we are not preparing them to the general population’s cultural literacy.

There are other discussions to be had, of course (for example, what content should constitute cultural literacy), but in tying this to homeschooling, Hirsch’s discussions have left me favouring homeschooling just a bit more. Within homeschooling there is much greater freedom to choose what literature to study, and more flexibility. No teacher to say that Greek philosophy must wait until high school, or to say that an in-depth discussion and understanding of religion and politics is too risky for the classroom. To be fair, a publicly-schooled child can learn these things just as well, if their parents discuss these things at home or encourage learning in this area. It’s just the idea of freedom from the start that attracts me that little bit more.

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