5 Good Books on Knowing Things

Why Don’t Students Like School? by Daniel Willingham

Knowing things brings pleasure. You cannot have the distinct enjoyment of listening to a book that riffs on the Odyssey and appreciating the way the author plays on the similarities and differences if you don’t know the Odyssey. Jazz without knowledge is merely random noise. Forcing students to wallow in their ignorance definitely brings confusion at best and hatred at worst because it will inevitably lead to failure.

There is no doubt that having students memorize lists of dry facts is not enriching. It is also true (though less often appreciated) that trying to teach students skills such as analysis or synthesis in the absence of factual knowledge is impossible.

Willingham

Making Kids Cleverer by Didau

I have deep reservations about Didau’s book, especially as it regards gifted children (who come from all social classes, albeit less identified in lower-SES groups). However, his central thesis is undeniable, especially if you have reviewed the questions on an intelligence test, as I have. We can make all our children “cleverer” and thus more successful as adults by systematically and purposefully placing factual knowledge in their essentially infinite, long-term, semantic memory to assist in overcoming limited working memory.

Fluid intelligence is our raw reasoning power, and is, as far as we can tell, fixed. Nothing we’ve tried as yet is able to increase it. Crystallised intelligence is the ability to apply what we know to new problems and can certainly be increased by adding to our store of knowledge. This is the central thesis of the book: more knowledge equals more intelligence.

When we compare the IQ of children of similar socio-economic status, most of the variance is explained by genes; but when the IQ scores of children of lower socio-economic status are compared, most of the variation is explained by environmental differences.

Didau

The Knowledge Deficit by E. D. Hirsch

In the US, I hear things like, “there will always be gaps” and “the important thing is to learn how to learn” and “children will teach themselves what they need to know.” But the truth is, that kind of laissez-faire attitude only benefits those children whose families can provide a home environment that greatly enriches their background knowledge, and thus their future success. All children can be made more academically successful by systematically and purposefully enriching their knowledge base.

Breadth of knowledge is the single factor within human control that contributes most to academic achievement and general cognitive competence. In contradiction to the theory of social determinism, breadth of knowledge is a far greater factor in achievement than socioeconomic status. The positive correlation between achieved ability and socioeconomic status is only half the correlation between achieved ability and the possession of general information. That is to say, being “smart” is more dependent on possessing general knowledge than on family background per se.

–pg. 106; E.D. Hirsch

How We Learn by Benedict Carey

The overlap on how we learn might not intuitively overlap with the importance of knowing things, but in fact, learning is all about adding to our our storehouse of knowledge. Without a clear knowledge base, all is “as one great blooming, buzzing confusion.” Even children who are “athletic,” “mathy,” or “precocious readers” need to have a knowledge base, often carefully tended by loving adults within a supportive home environment. Those children simply have more knowledge to understand (to discriminate) what is important to their area of expertise and so perform faster, quicker, better.

They’re “naturals.” We make a clear distinction between this kind of ability and expertise of the academic kind. Expertise is a matter of learning–of accumulating knowledge, of studying and careful thinking, of creating. It’s built, not born. The culture itself makes the same distinction between gifted athletes and productive scholars. Yet this distinction is also flawed in a fundamental way.

… the brain … perceives to learn. It takes the differences it has detected between similar-looking notes or letters or figures, and uses those to help decipher new, previously unseen material. … This “discrimination learning” builds on itself, the brain hoarding the benchmarks and signatures it eventually uses to read larger and larger chunks of information.

–pg 183; Carey

The Testing Charade by Koretz

Koretz is an expert on testing. There are some valid criticisms of his book, but he makes some excellent points about knowledge and testing and the results thereof–essentially, despite all we know about the importance of a well-rounded curriculum that supplies a wide knowledge base, our current US and UK education system, with its focus on high-stakes testing, is counterproductive to creating the kind of intellectual environment our students need.

Even in the area of intellectual development, what we really care about most is what he called “criterion behaviors”: the knowledge and skills that students are able to apply once they leave school. We can’t wait until students enter college or the workplace to do that—and wouldn’t be able to do it well even if we did wait—so instead we measure mastery of the school curriculum while kids are still in school. Moreover, even within that far narrower range, there is a great deal of student learning that we simply can’t measure well with standardized instruments.

high-stakes testing creates strong incentives to focus on the tested sample rather than the domain it is intended to represent. If you teach a domain better—say, geometry—scores on a good test of that area will go up. However, if you directly teach the small sample measured by a particular test—for example, memorization of the fact that vertical angles are equal—scores will increase, often dramatically, but mastery of geometry as a whole will not improve much, if at all. It is much as though a campaign tried to win an election by convincing the eight hundred polled people—and only those eight hundred people—to vote for their candidate.

–Koretz

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