There’s no critical thinking without a base of knowledge

November 18, 2016

Published in Troy Media.

The recent presidential election campaign was one of the worst in American history. Two sides entrenched themselves at opposite ends of the spectrum, slugged it out, and showed little interest in intelligent engagement.

In many ways, it was a campaign of ignorance. Fortunately, there is a remedy for ignorance—promote knowledge.

Knowledge is powerful because it combats ignorance. It is a lot harder to hold on to misguided beliefs or inaccurate stereotypes when presented with hard, cold facts. Ignorant election campaigns are likely to become the norm because public schools in the United States are more interested in trendy fads than in the knowledge that students so desperately need.

However, Canadians cannot be complacent. While our situation is better, surveys commissioned by Historica Canada reveal significant gaps in young people’s knowledge about history. As a case in point, last year more than one in four Canadians could not identify the name of our first prime minister and a similar number did not know that Confederation took place in 1867. This is unacceptable.

All Canadian high school graduates should have a clear understanding of the key events, dates, and people in Canadian history. For example, everyone should know about the treaties made between the First Nations and the Crown, the circumstances that led to Confederation in 1867, and Canada’s involvement in the two World Wars. We must identify the core knowledge that all students need to possess when they graduate and then we must structure the curriculum around this knowledge.

The concept of core knowledge extends beyond Canadian history. There are also specific scientific facts and theories that all students must know. It is unconscionable that anyone would graduate from high school without at least a basic understanding of meteorology, plate tectonics, and astronomy.

Similarly, students must learn how to do basic math and be able to use these skills to solve everyday problems. As for social studies, students should at least understand what is parliamentary democracy and how it works in Canada.

Unfortunately, the obsession that many ministries of education have with the 21st Century Learning fad has led to a reduced emphasis on knowledge. Trite phrases such as “the world is changing faster than ever before” and “we need to prepare students for jobs that don’t yet exist” are used to defend an educational philosophy that de-emphasizes factual content and replaces it with a nebulous process of learning.

While the 21st Century Learning advocates claim to value critical thinking, they fail to recognize that critical thinking can only take place in the context of understanding that requires knowledge about which to think critically. It is impossible to think critically about something you know nothing about. This is why core knowledge is important.

Knowledge is also the key to reading comprehension. All too often educators think of reading as a transferable skill that can be taught in isolation from specific content.

However, research is clear that reading comprehension soars when students have background knowledge about the topic. In contrast, if someone needs to look up the meaning of every other word in an article, that person will not understand the article, and probably would not even try reading it.

Well-known education author E. D. Hirsch, Jr. makes this point abundantly clear in his latest book, Why Knowledge Matters: Rescuing Our Children from Failed Educational Theories. Hirsch presents considerable research evidence showing that reading comprehension is closely linked to background knowledge. For many students, particularly those living in poverty, school is the only place where they can get this required knowledge. It is the only path to success for poor children.

It is not enough for schools to teach so-called critical thinking skills, as if they exist in a vacuum. In far too many cases, schools attempt to get around the need for knowledge by teaching students generic comprehension strategies such as “finding the main idea,” “drawing logical inferences,” and “close reading.” Hirsch shows that these strategies are not a substitute for background knowledge.

Frankly, 21st Century Learning advocates, in both the US and Canada, are promoting a misguided approach to learning. Facts and knowledge are not obsolete in the 21st Century—they are more important than ever. The best way to help students become critical thinkers is to make sure they acquire as much knowledge about as many subjects as possible. This will only happen when schools put knowledge at the forefront.

If we want students to become productive, mature citizens, we need to help them become knowledgeable. That is the cure for ignorance.