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Knowledge in the Classroom

By: Daniel T. Willingham
Learning happens when we connect new information to what we already know. When children have limited knowledge about the world, they have a smaller capacity to learn more about it. Here are four ways teachers can build content knowledge that will expand the opportunity for students to forge new connections — and make them better independent readers and learners.

One sometimes hears that the real goal of education is "learning to learn." As the proverb says, "Give a man a fish, and he will eat for a day; teach a man to fish, and he will eat for a lifetime." Better to teach students how to learn facts on their own, rather than teach them facts. The idea sounds appealing, but if it's coupled with the idea that teachers should emphasize cognitive processes (like comprehension and reasoning strategies), and place less emphasis on content, then it's wrong.

Many of the cognitive skills we want our students to develop — especially reading with understanding and successfully analyzing problems — are intimately intertwined with knowledge of content. When students learn facts they are not just acquiring grist for the mill — they are enabling the mill to operate more effectively. Background knowledge is absolutely integral to effectively deploying important cognitive processes. What does this mean for teachers?


Facts should be meaningful

"Fact learning" should not be understood as "rote memorization." The importance of knowledge to cognition does not mean that teachers should assign lists of facts for their students to memorize. Facts are useful only if they are meaningfully connected to other bits of knowledge. So, fact learning should be thought of as the kind of learning that results from, for example, reading a richly detailed biography — not a barren timeline of a person's life. Teachers should include opportunities for students to learn new material about the world and connect it to prior knowledge wherever possible. Mindless drilling is not an effective vehicle for building students' store of knowledge.

Knowledge acquisition can be incidental

Every fact that students learn need not be explicitly taught — students can learn facts incidentally. Incidental learning refers to learning that occurs when you are not specifically trying to learn. Much of what you know stuck in your memory not as a result of your consciously trying to remember it, but as a byproduct of thinking about it, such as when you reflect on a novel word that someone used in conversation or are fascinated by a new fact. When schools use a content-rich curriculum, students have many incidental learning opportunities as they are immersed in meaningful, connected facts throughout the day. Teachers can also look for extra opportunities to provide incidental learning opportunities for their students, for example, by using a vocabulary word that the students likely do not know, but the meaning of which is deducible from the context of the sentence.

Not all knowledge needs to be detailed

Note that the cognitive benefits described in this article differ in their knowledge requirements. For example, the knowledge required to increase reading comprehension is often fairly superficial. You don't need detailed knowledge about Benedict Arnold's life to understand what is meant by the relationship between Benedict Arnold and a traitor.

Fortunately, this sort of superficial knowledge is easy to pick up incidentally. For example, a rich fourth-grade unit on the American Revolution would likely include extensive information on key players such as King George III, George Washington, and Benjamin Franklin, but nothing more on Benedict Arnold than an aside emphasizing his role as a traitor. Such an aside would usually be enough to enhance reading comprehension. Most of us spend the majority of our time reading material intended for a general audience and for that material, superficial knowledge is sufficient.

Looking at the opposite end of the spectrum, deep knowledge is needed to attain benefits related to thinking such as the recognition of a chunk. Consider, for example, the algebra student who has not mastered the distributive property. Every time he faces a problem with a(b + c), he must stop and plug in easy numbers to figure out whether he should write a(b) + c or a + b(c) or a(b) + a(c). The best possible outcome is that he will eventually finish the problem-but he will have taken much longer than the students who know the distributive property well (and, therefore, have chunked it as just one step in solving the problem). The more likely outcome is that his working memory will become overwhelmed and he either won't finish the problem or he'll get it wrong. Practice in a number of different situations is required before knowledge can be used with ease for problem solving.

Knowledge learning should start early

Building a store of knowledge works like compound interest — it grows exponentially. For that reason, the earlier that students add to their database of knowledge the better. This process begins at home, long before children attend school. (Note that virtually all learning before children start school is incidental.) All teachers should take the job of teaching content to students seriously, but this job is doubly serious for teachers in preschool and early elementary classrooms. Because of the exponential learning rate, once children fall behind their peers, it becomes increasingly difficult to catch up. These young children can learn little, if any, material via reading, so they must learn by listening to fiction and nonfiction books read aloud, by watching demonstrations, through hands-on experiences, and so forth.

Reprinted with permission from the Spring 2006 issues of the American Educator, the quarterly journal of the American Federation of Teachers.

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