Hirsch and Bruner: Two Knowledge-Based Curricula Models. Curriculum Series Number Six

Hirsch’s ‘Communal knowledge’ curriculum and aspects of Bruner’s ‘Spiral Curriculum’ are both predicated on the importance of teaching knowledge. Bruner’s might be a controversial choice as he is sometimes seen as quite a ‘progressive’ figure but, I argue here, there are important aspects of his work that warrant inclusion in the ‘knowledge-based’ category.

Hirsch’s work is currently to the fore in many educational discussions about curriculum in England and therefore I will begin with his work, what is often referred to as a ‘core knowledge’ curriculum. I have referred to it above as ‘communal knowledge’ as it is the term that Hirsch has begun to use himself to describe his approach to what knowledge to include. This term replaces his other description of this, that of ‘cultural literacy’.

Hirsch argues that it is the ‘shared knowledge’ that is essential for all to be able to communicate with each other successfully in a common culture. He sees that a decline in shared knowledge is closely related to a decline in literacy. He places an emphasis on the importance of national knowledge over that of local and that knowing people’s ‘unspoken systems of association’ greatly helps mutual understanding. It is these ‘internalised schemata’ that help one read, write, and by having enough information especially early on in one’s education the mind is not always struggling due to cognitive overload to work out what it is reading, hearing, seeing etc.

It is not problems of cognition that see pupils struggle it is problems of knowledge. A child might be struggling at school because they don’t know enough, and, crucially, though they might know a lot about certain things, it is their lack of access to the ‘shared’ knowledge that is keeping them back.

The breadth of the knowledge taught aids a pupil’s endeavours in acquiring cultural ‘literacy’. If one reads a national newspaper one needs a great deal of breadth in one’s knowledge to understand what is written within. Therefore it is not enough to teach a child to read and restrict their reading to functional books with a limited range of information, a child also needs a wide range of subjects and rich texts to be able to take their part in society. As explained in the Core Knowledge series of books from Civitas, (edited by Hirsch), in the context of teaching a child to read, they need: ‘the systematic teaching of the ‘nuts and bolts’ of written language: phonics and decoding skills… spelling, handwriting, punctuation, grammar… [and] a rich diet of poetry, fiction and non-fiction… and… that children be given frequent opportunities to use language in creative and expressive ways. A balance needs to be found between the nuts and bolts, and the ‘rich diet’ and ‘creative and expressive ways.’

Knowledge is ‘sequenced’ – new knowledge is built on what has already been learned. This sequence needs to be coherent. For example a teacher might teach about Ancient Rome after teaching about Ancient Greece, the sonnet form before looking at Shakespeare’s plays. The wide range of academic disciplines are covered from general knowledge to deeper knowledge.

The pupils need to acquire this carefully sequenced knowledge from a broad curriculum that is experienced right from the beginning of their schooling.

In his book ‘Why Knowledge Matters’ Hirsch refers to Jerome Bruner as the ’eminent research psychologist’ suggesting, based on his work, that teachers might abandon the phrase ‘developmentally inappropriate’ when it comes to deciding what to teach and when.

Bruner argued that:

any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development.

The idea that no content is inappropriate due to the age of the child might be considered controversial yet, as Daniel Willingham says of Bruner’s work:

If we accept that students’ failure to understand is not a matter of content, but either of presentation or a lack of back- ground knowledge, then the natural extension is that no content should be off limits for school-age children… Bruner goes on to suggest that children can get an intuitive grasp of a complex concept before they have the background and maturity to deal with the same topic in a formal manner… Without trivialising them, complex ideas can be introduced by making them concrete and through reference to children’s experience.

In his 1996 work ‘the Culture of Education,’ Bruner wrote:

culture shapes the mind… it provides us with the toolkit by which we construct not only our worlds but our very conception of our selves and our powers

This seems to agree with Hirsch’s ideas around cultural literacy. Culture is central to the educative process; it should, therefore, be essential to educate children about the cultural heritage in which they are born. But how to ensure children ‘learn’ this communal knowledge?

For Bruner it isn’t simply about the learning of knowledge in a logical sequence, he goes a step further:

The teaching and learning of structure, rather than simply the mastery of facts and techniques, is at the centre of the classic problem of transfer… If earlier learning is to render later learning easier, it must do so by providing a general picture in terms of which the relations between things encountered earlier and later are made as clear as possible

Bruner proposed a ‘spiral curriculum’. This curriculum focuses on the structure of knowledge, on key ideas and concepts, and the method of adding to that knowledge within the discipline. He proposed that children should first come across a concept or idea in a simple, concrete way and then later return and continue to revisit the concepts in ever more complex ways. He introduced the idea of ‘scaffolding’ to help children to understand the underlying principles and helping them to take the next steps. Sceptical of the mechanistic approach to cognitive psychology as a humanist he wanted to take into account how context matters and also how we can make ourselves. Bruner said:

I’m becoming increasingly convinced that the powers of mind reach their fullness not simply in accumulation – in what we come to know – but rather in what we can do with what we know, how we are enabled to frame possibilities beyond the conventions of the present, to forge possible worlds

Going back over the same concepts and methods in each subject area has knowledge build on knowledge. This knowledge is focused on concepts, ideas and skills, for Hirsch, it could be argued, that knowledge is more content and product based rather than looking at the underlying structure of that knowledge.

For Bruner one cannot just focus on product, process is vital. In this he moves into areas that for many on the ‘knowledge’ side of curriculum design might be controversial. For him children experiencing the ‘structure of disciplines’ was important. How knowledge is learnt is as important as what is learned. Here he ventures into the realm of doing – thinking and working like a mathematician, a historian, an actor etc. he suggested helps one absorb and learn the underlying concepts that go together to make up that discipline. Know how as well as know what.

Knowledge based curricula are not just of one ‘type’. In fact there are many discussions going on as to what a ‘knowledge-based’ education might look like and consist of that make it as fascinating an area to look at in itself. If a school has decided to focus on a knowledge based approach to curriculum design there is still much research to be done.

In my next post I will look at further knowledge based approaches, those ideas that are based firmly in the ‘liberal arts’ category.



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