Know to learn

In AFT’s American Educator, E.D. Hirsch argues that building students’ knowledge base is essential to educating students who comprehend what they decode.

Instead of a respect for the importance of knowledge, Romanticism gave us faith in the half-truth that the most important thing for students to learn is “how to learn.” It bequeathed to us a tendency to dismiss the acquisition of broad knowledge as “rote learning” of “mere facts” to subtly disparage “merely verbal” presentations in books and by teachers, and to criticize school knowledge unless it is connected to “real life” in a “hands-on” way.  

Basal readers teach “formal comprehension stragies, such as predicting, summarizing, questioning, and clarifying,” independent of any body of knowledge.

Knowledge is good, writes Daniel Willingham in the same issue.

Those with a rich base of factual knowledge find it easier to learn more—the rich get richer. In addition, factual knowledge enhances cognitive processes like problem solving and reasoning. The richer the knowledge base, the more smoothly and effectively these cognitive processes—the very ones that teachers target—operate. So, the more knowledge students accumulate, the smarter they become.

I think of knowledge as Velcro. The more little knowledge hooks you’ve got in your brain, the easier it is for new knowledge to stick.

Via Education Gadfly.

About Joanne


  1. I naturally have strong problem solving skills, but a horrible memory. I do know how to look up information, and I agree that the more information that I can remember, the easier it is to find the information I need. I like the velcro analogy. For instance to use google, one needs words to put into the search engine to begin with. The more specific the word, the better that a search engine can work.

    I think that students need both, knowledge and the ability to critically think and solve problems. I think both sides taken to an extreme are incorrect. It is the balance of the two that makes learning work correctly. Knowledge without critical thinking skills makes no sense because a framework and reasons to use them are needed. It is like knowledge is a set of tools and without critical thinking skills, they will just sit there and collect dust from lack of use. On the other hand, say a carpenter wanted to build something. Without knowledge, it like asking a carpenter to build a house with any tools to use in order to build it. Both the tools and the skilled person who can figure out how to use the tools is needed to build the house. They work together.

  2. I like the velcro analogy, too, and agree with Gayl that a balance between thinking skills and memorization. I’d observe, though, that the “educators” who talk most about thinking skills seem to have little interest in things like formal logic, statistical inference, and the scientific method…*actual* thinking skills which apply across mutiple content domains.

    See my post Thinking and Memorizing.

  3. The Velcro statement is so good that I added it to my list of all-time favorite quotes.

  4. I like the Velcro analogy too.

    I always pictured the knowledge in my head as being part of a network sort of thing – like a big complex structure built out of Tinker-Toys. And when I learned something new, I was able to ‘snap’ it in with the other information it fit with. (That was probably partly why I did well in school). I also found that by having these connections, I could “backdoor” my way to something I needed to remember if I had forgot the “front door” way.

    I wish I could teach people how to do that – to construct a mental network of knowledge so everything is more or less connected – but I don’t know how.

  5. Math fuzzies who promote discovery or constructivist techniques in teaching math (let the kids discover what they need to know when presented with a problem) would probably agree with Hirsch. You ask “HUh WHA?” Yes. They assume that the factual knowledge which is the basis for learning math is innate in children and the discovery technique bootstraps on to that pre-wired miracle.

  6. Indigo Warrior says:

    For some people, it is innate. Not for others. The only thing that everyone needs is education to match his personal needs.