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.


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.