I’ve started in on Daniel Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School. The sub-line is more informative: “A cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom.” See here, here or here.

Without giving an in-depth summary or review of the book, here are some of the more fascinating insights I’ve gained thus far (through 2 chapters). I’m sharing them largely as tidbits for reflection rather than being particularly analytical:

Thinking and Memory

  • Compared to the majority of the brain’s other functions, conscious thinking is actual rather slow, inefficient, and clumsy.
  • “Thinking” is defined as combining information in new ways and that information comes from both the environment and one’s long-term memory.
  • The argument that we ought to focus on teaching people/kids to evaluate information rather than acquire new knowledge because of the volumes of information readily available in the internet is false (I used to hold the evaluate rather than acquire view).
  • “Working memory” is the part of the brain where thinking and awareness take place.

“Chunking”

Knowledge is essential to reading comprehension. When it comes to learning and thinking, the effectiveness of our working memory doesn’t depend on the amount of information we are trying to take it, it depends on the number of meaningful objects, or “chunks” of related information we are trying to process.

The more “chunking” we can do with all the information around us, the more and faster we can learn. Chunking requires background knowledge in order to group things in our working memory, combining information and tying new information to existing information. Therefore, “background knowledge allows chunking, which makes more room in working memory, which makes it easier to relate ideas, and therefore to comprehend” new ideas or knowledge. Empirical studies have demonstrated — in reading comparisons, for instance — that the amount of comprehension depended far more on a reader’s prior knowledge than their reading level as indicated by standardized reading tests. To sum, comprehension depends on background knowledge. The more you know, the faster you learn, and the more you retain. 

Willingham addresses the proverbial (and demonstrable) “fourth-grade slump” whereby students from at-risk or underserved backgrounds tend to lag a grade level behind their peers in reading ability suddenly fall even further behind starting at fourth grade:

“reading tests start to emphasize comprehension. As described here, comprehension requires background knowledge, and that’s where kids from privileged homes have an edge. They come to a school with a bigger vocabulary and more knowledge about the world than underprivileged kids. And because knowing things makes it easier to learn new things, the gap…widens” (p.28).

Background knowledge is necessary for cognitive skills.

Long-term memory plays a much greater role in problem solving than specific critical thinking skills. Memory is “the cognitive process of first resort.” It is naturally what our brain turns to first before conscious thinking in working memory. Consider the difference in thinking required by a 15-year old student driver versus a 40-year old adult who’s been driving in urban traffic to work for decades. The latter has to do very little concrete thinking because of the vast knowledge bank (also called “experience”) they have accumulated: road routes, vehicle speeds, traffic patterns, muscle control, foot-hand-eye coordination, road locations, turn signals, exits, and so on.

Factual knowledge improves your memory

Experimental studies demonstrate that having a greater amount of background knowledge directly correlates to the amount of newly acquired information you retain as time goes by. Consider two people, one of which is a dedicated football fan and the other who knows virtually nothing about the game. Imagine they both are asked to read a summary of a college football game from the prior weekend. Which would you suppose would recall more details or have an easier time recalling those details from that article 24 hours later? The more knowledge you have of something, the greater your memory when absorbing new information because you have a much greater bank of knowledge to tie it to. Having factual knowledge makes it easier to acquire more factual knowledge.

Einstein was wrong…sort of.

Einstein supposedly once said, “imagination is more important than knowledge.” Willingham hopes to persuade us that Einsten was wrong. I concur. Knowledge is required for the kind of imagination that is needed for creativity, problem-solving, entrepreneurial work, and good decision-making. It is true that one can have knowledge and not be imaginative, but it is difficult to grasp how one could be imaginative without have a meaningful well of knowledge (data, facts, information, ideas) which are the raw ingredients for imagination. This is all the more ironic given the incredible wealth of knowledge which Einstein himself so obviously possessed. What I would contend Einstein actually meant (or should have meant) is this: you must acquire knowledge so that you may then use it to be imaginative in a way that changes the world around you. 

But knowledge you must have.

For Teachers

Willingham offers these implications for educators.

  • Build a good knowledge base before emphasizing critical thinking.
  • Do whatever you can to get kids to READ…and not music, social media, or sports sites on the internet.
  • Knowledge acquisition can be…and often is…incidental. Often, the best acquisition of knowledge happens by exposure in the midst of other things than in concentrated study or memorization; e.g., factual data wrapped in math or science problems, reading good historical fiction, watching documentaries, thoughtfully written movies, conversation with friends, reading the news, and the like.
  • Start early. Which also means early intervention in building exposure to the world of knowledge is both the greatest challenge and greatest gift we can give to kids.
  • Make knowledge meaningful. Simply expelling lists of facts (or dates or concepts) is not all that useful. Instead, connect the dots, make it interesting, tie facts to familiar things, make it about the excitement of discovery rather than the drudgery of memorizing another useless piece of data.

 

 

 

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