Knowledge-based schooling puts the emphasis of early education on teaching and learning an enabling core of broadly shared knowledge—enabling because it builds strong foundations for later learning and opens doors to effective participation and mutual understanding in the wider society. Such knowledge is possessed by successful adults and taken for granted by literate writers and speakers. It’s the broad and diverse knowledge that makes responsible citizenship possible.
The Big Ideas Behind Knowledge-Based Schooling
Why is knowledge-based schooling so important?
You learn something new by building on what you already know. The more you know, the more you are able to learn.
This insight, well-established by cognitive science (the study of how the mind works), has profound implications for teaching and learning.
Teachers know that when you introduce a new subject, some students will brighten with looks of recognition while others will retreat into puzzlement and uncertainty. Asking students to discuss a “threatened presidential veto” will only make sense to those familiar with the three branches of government and the principle of checks and balances in the Constitution. To learn something new, we need the relevant background knowledge. And such knowledge can’t be left to chance.
“The achievement gap is chiefly a knowledge gap and a language gap. It can be greatly ameliorated by knowledge-based schooling.” E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Why Knowledge Matters (2016)
The earliest reading instruction teaches children to decode—to turn the marks on the page into their corresponding speech sounds (c – a – t > “cat”). But the ability to decode text fluently is only part of the challenge for developing readers.
In American schools, reading instruction typically proceeds from decoding to a focus on skills, such as finding the main idea, inferring, and comparing and contrasting. But if students are to understand what they read, they also need broad, content-rich knowledge of history, geography, science, literature, and the arts.
We need to see the reading comprehension problem for what it primarily is—a knowledge problem. There is no way around the need for children to gain broad general knowledge in order to gain broad general proficiency in reading. E. D. Hirsch, Jr., The Knowledge Deficit (2006)
No two people share exactly the same knowledge. But most people in a literate society know a great deal in common. In part, it’s this commonly shared knowledge that allows us to communicate.
When we communicate, we assume that our audience knows certain things that we know—not just the definitions of the words we’re speaking or writing, but a whole range of unspoken meanings and associations.
On the evening news you might hear the sportscaster refer to the victory of an underdog team as a “real Cinderella story.” On the same broadcast, the newscaster might refer to “rising interest rates” or “the ozone layer” or “the Brown decision.”
The newscaster doesn’t pause to explain—it’s taken for granted that you understand those terms. Shared knowledge is essential if we are to communicate with and understand each other.
Only by imparting to all children the knowledge that is commonly possessed by successful citizens can all children gain the possibility of success—“success” understood as becoming a person with autonomy, who commands respect, has a communal voice that can write and speak effectively to strangers, can earn a good living, and can contribute to a wider community. E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Why Knowledge Matters (2016)
Advantaged students who arrive in the classroom with background knowledge and vocabulary will understand what a textbook or teacher is saying and will therefore learn more. Disadvantaged students who lack such prior knowledge will fail to understand and thus fall even further behind, relative to their fellow students.
Only by specifying the knowledge that all children should share can we guarantee equal access to that knowledge. In our current system, disadvantaged children especially suffer from low expectations that translate into watered-down curricula.
It’s important to begin building foundations of knowledge in the early grades because that’s when children are most receptive. Academic deficiencies in the first eight grades can permanently impair the quality of later schooling.
Only a well-rounded, knowledge-specific curriculum can impart needed knowledge to all children and overcome inequality of opportunity. E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Why Knowledge Matters (2016)
Knowledge-Based Schooling: From Ideas to Practice
Both the realities of cognitive science and the ideals of social justice support the need for knowledge-based schooling. Cognitive science confirms these facts:
- Children can advance educationally only when they have the expected prior knowledge.
- They can become better readers only by building extensive knowledge of the world.
- They can become effective members of the wider society only by sharing the knowledge taken for granted by literate writers and speakers in that society.
Social justice demands that we give all children equal access to important shared knowledge. Only by specifying the knowledge that all children should share can we guarantee equal access to that knowledge.
Learn more about the Core Knowledge Sequence—our effort (and the result of extensive research and consensus-building) to describe and state the specific core of shared knowledge that children should learn in U.S. schools from preschool through grade eight.
Explore the growing body of materials for teachers and students that we have created and make freely available to support knowledge-based schooling.Read more about the case for content-rich curriculum.