Knowledge in the Classroom

By Daniel T. Willingham

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.

The effects that I described in the main article indicate that 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?

1. 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.* As described in the main article, 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.

2. 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.

3. 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. Using our examples from the main article, you don't need detailed knowledge about penguins or Arnold's life to understand what is meant by the relationship between a fish and a penguin or 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 (as in the example from the main article of the students who have memorized the distributive property). Practice in a number of different situations is required before knowledge can be used with ease for problem solving.

4. 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.


Daniel T. Willingham is professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Virginia and author of Cognition: The Thinking Animal. He is author of American Educator's regular feature, "Ask the Cognitive Scientist." His research focuses on the role of consciousness in learning.

*For a full explanation, see "Inflexible Knowledge: The First Step to Expertise," in the Winter 2002 issue of American Educator. (back to article)

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