Knowledge is more important than ever in schools

December 10, 2014

Published in the Chronicle Herald (Halifax)

Imagine that you are a fly on the wall in a faculty of education classroom or in a teachers’ professional development session. What would you hear?

Chances are that you would hear about the need for teachers to establish a student-centred classroom environment in which a hands-on discovery approach prevails. In fact, teachers are regularly told to focus more on the so-called process of learning than on specific academic content.

The degree to which factual knowledge is de-emphasized and even disparaged in educational circles usually comes as a surprise to most parents and taxpayers. After all, school is generally assumed to be as a place where students learn specific knowledge and skills so they eventually become productive citizens.

Instead, teachers are told in faculties of education and professional development sessions that they are simply “guides on the side” who facilitate the creation of new knowledge by students. This is where failed innovations such as fuzzy math, whole language, and open-area classrooms find their root. At the heart is a bizarre notion that there is little need to impart specific factual knowledge to students.

However, despite the widespread acceptance of this ideology by education professors and education department officials, there is remarkably little evidence supporting it. In fact, the weight of the research evidence comes down squarely on the side of those who advocate for the direct instruction of specific factual knowledge.

For example, educational researcher John Hattie and cognitive psychologist Gregory Yates do not mince words in their 2014 book, Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn, when they say:

“But there is little basis to suggest that personal discovery within itself assists a person to actually learn…. The discovery learning process demands a high level of non-productive mental effort, which could be more profitably directed to genuine knowledge building.”

Far from being irrelevant pieces of trivia, factual knowledge provides students with the essential building blocks that make higher-level learning possible. It is not hard to see why this is so. Take two students, one who knows many facts about Métis leader Louis Riel and another who has never heard anything about him. It shouldn’t take too long to figure out which student is more likely to develop a deep understanding of the historical grievances of the Métis people.

The same principle holds true in other subject areas. Mathematics is an obvious case in point. A student who knows his multiplication tables by memory is far more likely to succeed at solving algebraic equations than a student who needs a calculator to answer basic questions such as 5 x 6. This is because the student who does not know the multiplication tables is more likely to become bogged down and confused by sequential, multi-step problems.

Cognitive psychologists have developed a term for this important concept—cognitive load, which means there is a limit to the amount of information that can be easily stored in our working memory. This is why, for example, we usually struggle to remember a newly introduced seven-digit phone number.

However, once a phone number has been committed to our long-term memories through frequent repetition, we no longer have difficulty remembering it. Because this phone number now comes to mind automatically, it produces a very low cognitive load. The same holds true with the subject matter knowledge that is taught in school. Students who know their basic math facts experience less cognitive load when solving advanced math problems than students who do not.

In his 2009 book, Why Don’t Students Like School?, cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham summarizes the importance of factual knowledge. “The very processes that teachers care about most—critical thinking processes such as reasoning and problem solving—are intimately intertwined with factual knowledge that is stored in long-term memory (not just found in the environment).”

In other words, students cannot think critically about a major historical event if they know nothing about the event in question. Nor can they solve multi-step algebraic equations without knowing the correct order of operations. A broad knowledge base is absolutely essential to the development of critical thinking skills.

Thus, despite what prospective teachers may hear from their education professors, students benefit greatly when their teachers directly impart knowledge to them. In order for students to think critically, they must become knowledgeable first.