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Why E.D. Hirsch’s particular brand of “science” is powerless to challenge direct instruction

Dr Hugh Morrison (The Queen’s University of Belfast [retired])



The cover page of the Times Education Supplement (TES) quotes the distinguished American educationalist E D Hirsch’s claim that “there is no scientific basis for direct instruction.”  Given the high regard in which Hirsch is held by educational traditionalists, there will be widespread dismay that one of their own is invoking science to attack a traditional pedagogical technique that can see off any progressivist model when it comes to raising the educational standards of poor children.  (Readers who google the words “direct instruction” will see why this classroom approach is so important to traditionalists.)  Hirsch clearly appreciates that the reasoning set out in his new book may not be received with universal acclaim: “To offend everybody is one of the few prerogatives left to old age.”  The good news for proponents of direct instruction everywhere is that the “science” Hirsch appeals to makes no sense.




The basis of Hirsch’s TES “scientific” attack is the field of cognitive science.  To convince his readers that his book represents “consensus science” he has invited two prominent cognitive scientists, Steven Pinker and Daniel Willingham, to “blurb” the book.  Now cognitive scientists hold that psychological attributes like thought, understanding, memory, meaning, and so on, are internal processes associated with the human brain/mind.  According to cognitive scientists the mind/brain is a self-contained realm where computations are performed on mental “representations.”  However, one of the towering figures of 20th century thought, Ludwig Wittgenstein, regarded this type of thinking as deeply misconceived.  He wrote that: “The confusion and barrenness of psychology is not to be explained by calling it a “young science”: its state is not comparable with that of physics, for instance, in its beginnings. … For in psychology there are experimental methods and conceptual confusion.”  In their 2003 book Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience Max Bennet and Peter Hacker use Wittgensteinian reasoning to attack cognitive neuroscience’s central claims.  In the remainder of this essay the “consensus science” which informs Hirsch’s claims is undermined using the writings of Bennett and Hacker.  The reader needs neither a background in cognitive psychology nor a grounding in philosophy to appreciate immediately the validity of Wittgenstein’s “conceptual confusion” claim; a healthy dose of common sense will reveal immediately the error at the heart of cognitive science.


While it is clear that thinking would be impossible without a properly functioning brain, the claim that brains can think or that thinking takes place in the brain ought to be supported with scientific evidence.  No such evidence exists.  To mistakenly attribute properties to the brain which are, in fact, properties of the human being is to fall prey to what Bennett and Hacker refer to as the “mereological fallacy.” (Mereology is concerned with part/whole relations and the fallacy goes all the way back to Aristotle.)


“Psychological predicates are predicates that apply essentially to the whole living animal, not to its parts.  It is not the eye (let alone the brain) that sees, but we see with our eyes (and we do not see with our brains, although without a brain functioning normally in respect of the visual system, we would not see).  So, too, it is not the ear that hears, but the animal whose ear it is.  The organs of an animal are part of the animal, and psychological predicates are ascribable to the whole animal, not its constituent parts” (pp. 72-73).


Cognitive scientists often refer to brains “thinking,” “knowing,” “believing,” “deciding,” “seeing an image of a cube,” “reasoning,” “learning” and so on.


“We know what it is for human beings to experience things, to see things, to know or believe things, to make decisions … But do we know what it is for a brain to see … for a brain to have experiences, to know or believe something?  Do we have any conception of what it would be like for a brain to make a decision? … These are all attributes of human beings.  Is it a new discovery that brains also engage in such human activities?” (p. 70)


In the words of Wittgenstein (1953, §281): “Only of a human being and what resembles (behaves like) a living human being can one say: it has sensations; it sees, is blind; hears, is deaf; is conscious or unconscious”.  If the human brain can learn, “This would be astonishing, and we should want to hear more.  We should want to know what the evidence for this remarkable discovery was” (Bennett & Hacker, 2003, p. 71).  It is important to appreciate the depth of the error committed here.  When the claim that the brain can think is called into question, this doesn’t render valid the assertion that brains, in fact, cannot think.


“It is our contention that this application of psychological predicates to the brain makes no sense.  It is not that as a matter of fact brains do not think, hypothesise and decide, see and hear, ask and answer questions; rather, it makes no sense to ascribe such predicates or their negations to the brain.  The brain neither sees, nor is it blind – just as sticks and stones are not awake, but they are not asleep either” (p. 72).



One gets the clear impression from the cognitive science literature that understanding or remembering are inner processes.  Wittgenstein, while accepting that without a properly functioning brain one couldn’t learn, nevertheless teaches that understanding is something attributed to the whole person, and not the brain.  When a teacher asks a pupil what she thinks, the pupil expresses her thoughts in language.  Were it not for the pupil’s language skills, the teacher couldn’t ascribe thoughts to her.  Since brains aren’t language-using creatures, how can it make sense to ascribe thoughts to a brain?



While cognitive scientists may protest that the brain’s ability to make connections while it (the brain) is learning, is visible from the PET or fMRI images of the brain, scientific writing should always show restraint:


“But this does not show that the brain is thinking, reflecting or ruminating; it shows that such-and-such parts of a person’s cortex are active when the person is thinking, reflecting or ruminating.  (What one sees on the scan is not the brain thinking – there is no such thing as a brain thinking – nor the person thinking – one can see that whenever one looks at someone sunk in thought, but not by looking at a PET scan – but the computer-generated image of the excitement of cells in his brain that occurs when he is thinking.)” (pp. 83-84).



In Neuroscience & Philosophy: Brain, Mind and Language (2007, p. 143), Bennett and Hacker write:


“But if one wants to see thinking going on, one should look at the Le Penseur (or the surgeon operating or the chess player playing or the debater debating), not his brain.  All his brain can show is which parts of the brain are metabolizing more oxygen than others when the patient in the scanner is thinking.”




In order to see off Hirsch’s ill-founded claims, advocates of direct instruction can appeal to no less a thinker than Aristotle.  Around 350BC he wrote:

“to say that the soul (psyche) is angry is as if one were to say that the soul weaves or builds.  For it is surely better not to say that the soul pities, learns or thinks, but that a man does these with his soul.”