On the Importance of Knowledge

“I’m not here to barrage you with facts, but to teach you how to think.”  You may have heard some variant of this assertion from a teacher or school administrator at least once in your lifetime.

Sounds right, doesn’t it?  Afterall, we forget facts, but we don’t so easily forget how to think, and just as it makes better sense to teach a person to fish, doesn’t it make more sense to teach a person to think than to memorize facts?

Well, yes and no.  The fact is, we need facts to think.  Facts and thinking go hand in hand.  They’re not opposed, as the fictitious quote above suggests.

Further – and here’s where it gets more interesting – cognitive research shows that the more one knows about a given topic, the better one remembers, comprehends and problem solves on that topic (see the literature review in Ricks & Wiley 2009).   

KnowledgeJoshua Foer, author of the bestseller, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything (2011), summarizes one of the notable experiments that supports this link between knowledge and better thinking:

“This paradox – it takes knowledge to gain knowledge – is captured in a study in which researchers wrote up a detailed description of a half inning of baseball and gave it to a group of baseball fanatics…and a group of less avid fans to read.  Afterward they tested how well their subjects could recall the half inning.  The baseball fanatics structured their recollections around important game-related events, like runners advancing and scoring.  They were able to reconstruct the half inning in sharp detail.  One almost got the impression they were reading off an internal scorecard.

“The less avid fans remembered fewer important facts about the game and were more likely to recount superficial details like the weather.  Because they lacked a detailed internal representation of the game, they couldn’t process the information they were taking in.  They didn’t know what was important and what was trivial.  They couldn’t remember what mattered.  Without a conceptual framework in which to embed what they were learning, they were effectively amnesics.” (Foer 2011, p.208)

Imagine what this link between knowledge and better thinking means for other domains.  For instance, in politics, there is evidence that those citizens who know more about politics tend to be more interested and active in politics.  Do they also think better about politics?  Are they less manipulable?  More precisely, are those more politically informed less likely to be distracted from politicians’ policy/issue positions (i.e., what really affects citizens) by surface appearances and seductive but relatively superficial political information, like whether or not a U.S. presidential candidate “looked presidential” in a debate, or who is doing better in polling or fundraising?   (For more on citizen political knowledge and manipulability, see the classic, The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion, by John Zaller).

The bottom line is this: given evidence that knowing more about a topic makes one better at remembering, comprehending and problem-solving on that topic, doesn’t it make sense to spread information more widely in people’s everyday lives, and link that information to further learning and reward online?

Paul Lachelier, Ph.D.
Founder, Learning Life

Foer, Joshua.  2011.  Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything.  New York: Penguin Press.

Ricks, Travis R., and Jennifer Wiley. 2009.  “The Influence of Domain Knowledge on the Functional Capacity of Working Memory.”Journal of Memory and Language 61(4):519-537.

Zaller, John.  1992.  The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion.  1992.  Cambridge: Cambridge

University Press.


Further scientific research on the link between knowledge, memory and cognition

Adams, B. C., L.C. Bell, and C.A. Perfetti.  1995.  “A trading relationship between reading skill and domain knowledge in children’s text comprehension.” Discourse Processes 20:307–323.

Chase, W. G., and H.A. Simon.  1973.  “The mind’s eye in chess” in W. G. Chase (ed.), Visual Information Processing.”  New York: Academic Press.

Chi, M., P. Feltovich, and R. Glaser.  1981.  “Categorization and representation of physics problems by experts and novices.”  Cognitive Science 5:121–152.

Daneman, M., and P.A. Carpenter.  1980.  “Individual differences in working memory and reading.” Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior 19:450–466.

Ericsson, K. A., and W. Kintsch.  1995.  “Long-term working memory.”  Psychological Review 102:211–245.

Feltovich, P. J.,  M.J. Prietula, and K.A. Ericsson.  2006.  “Studies of expertise from psychological perspective.”  In K. A. Ericsson, N. Charness, P. J. Feltovich, and R. R. Hoffman (Eds.), The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance.  New York: Cambridge University Press.

Fincher-Kiefer, R., T.A. Post, T.R. Greene, and J.F. Voss.  1988.  “On the role of prior knowledge and task demands in the processing of text.”  Journal of Memory and Language 27:416–428.

Glaser, R., & M.T. Chi.  1988.  “Overview” in M. T. Chi, R. Glaser, and M. J. Farr (Eds.), The Nature of Expertise (pp. xv–xviii).  Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Gobet, F., and N. Charness.  2006.  “Chess and games” in K. A. Ericsson, N. Charness, P. J. Feltovich and R. R. Hoffman (Eds.), The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Hambrick, D. Z., and R.W. Engle.  2002.  “Effects of domain knowledge, working memory capacity, and age on cognitive performance: An investigation of the knowledge is power hypothesis.” Cognitive Psychology 44:339–387.

Just, M. A., & P.A. Carpenter.  1992.  “A capacity theory of comprehension: Individual differences in working memory.”  Psychological Review 99:122–149.

Just, M. A., and S. Varma.  2002.  “A hybrid architecture for working memory: Reply to MacDonald and Christiansen.”  Psychological Review 109:55–65.

Miller, L. M., E. A. Stine-Morrow, H. Kirkorian, and M. Conroy.  2004.  “Adult age differences in knowledge-driven reading.”  Journal of Educational Psychology 96:811–821.

Recht, D. R., and L. Leslie.  1988.  “Effect of prior knowledge on good and poor readers’ memory of text.” Journal of Educational Psychology 80:16–20.

Schneider, W., J. Korkel, and F.E. Weinert.  1989.  “Domain-specific knowledge and memory performance: A comparison of high- and low-aptitude children.”  Journal of Educational Psychology 81:306–312.

Spilich, G. J., G.T. Vesonder, H.L. Chiesi, and V.F. Voss.  1979.  “Text processing of domain-related information for individuals with high and low domain knowledge.”  Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior 22:231–244.

Voss, J. F., G.T. Vesonder, and G.J. Spilich.  1980.  “Text generation and recall by high knowledge and low knowledge individuals.” Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior 19:651–667.

Voss, J. F., T.R. Greene, T.A.  Post, and B.C. Penner.  1983.  “Problem solving in the social sciences.”  In G. H. Bower (Ed.). The Psychology of Learning and Motivation: Advances in Research Theory (Vol. 17). New York: Academic Press.

Wiley, J.  2005.  “A fair and balanced look at the news: What affects memory for controversial arguments?” Journal of Memory and Language 53:95–109.

Let Learning Live

It is an axiom of today’s world that “knowledge is power.”  Yet across the world, knowledge is woefully unequally distributed, contributing powerfully to the great material inequalities people see.  Knowledge need not be so unequally distributed, but conventional calls for more and better schooling are not enough.  We need to think outside the school box.

Through much of human history political elites usually drew on birth, religion, land or sheer force to assert their power.  Today’s elites – politicians, business leaders, experts and cultural icons – rely more on knowledge, whether of public opinion, policy, industry trends, the latest science, cultural movements, social networks, or else.  But knowledge – understood as interrelated concepts, theories and facts in government, business, science, culture and other domains – is also central to the lives of ordinary people in the contemporary world, especially those in the wealthiest nations.  People in wealthy nations above all depend on their own variable knowledge not only to perform in increasingly knowledge-intensive workplaces, but also to find work, fix problems, make informed purchases, and make sense of the fast-moving world around them.

Let learning liveIn part because of the everyday need for knowledge, more people are getting more schooling.  Yet there remain sharp inequalities in educational attainment as many drop out of high school or college while others finish Master’s and Ph.D. degrees.  Further, because birds of a feather do indeed tend to flock together, those with similar educational attainment are more likely to befriend and marry each other, thereby compounding the educational divides in theirs and future generations.  These educational patterns contribute to life-shaping inequalities in employment, income, health and community engagement, as abundant research shows.

Educational inequalities are inevitable given the modern world’s extensive division of labor, but their severity and rigidity are not.  Reducing educational inequalities though demands some rethinking: thinking not just about more and better schools, as important as these are, but thinking outside the school box in at least three fundamental ways.

First, education does not just occur in schools in one’s youth.  For better or worse, a lot of the knowledge people absorb is not learned in school but in everyday life throughout the life course, on TV, the internet, in movies, newspapers, books and magazines, at work, and in casual conversation.

Second, learning is not just active, but passive.  Schools presuppose active learning: people consciously enroll in school, attend classes, do homework, write papers, pass tests and courses in order to graduate with a diploma.  But outside school, learning is often passive: people learn about people, places, things, concepts and ideas incidentally at play or rest, in conversation with family or friends, watching TV, playing games, or gazing at posters and billboards.

Third, what people learn in school competes in their minds with what they learn outside of school, and not all the abundant information one learns out of (or in) school is equal in value.  There is who said what on TV sitcoms, and there is who said what in poetry or philosophy.  There is who is dating whom in Hollywood, and who is helping or hurting whom in the world.  There is who is playing whom in sports, and who is making what laws that affects us all, for worse or better.  There is what’s advertised, and there is what’s true.  In a word, there is trivia, and there is what I call “signia,” that is, significant information or knowledge that matters to people’s wellbeing.

If learning signia matters to people’s wellbeing – for instance, knowing what causes and prevents disease, how governments work and spend our taxes, how economies and ecologies work and affect us, how individuals can shape their destinies and societies, what great thinkers have said about life and love, or freedom and community, etc. – then it behooves societies to spread signia more widely and creatively, to make learning signia, rather than trivia, more of a part of everyone’s everyday life, not just of those most educationally motivated.

Currently, governments, universities and publishers produce a wealth of signia, but much of it is published in journals, reports and books few people read.  Some academics, journalists and others do seek to spread signia further via newspapers, magazines, radio, TV and the internet.  But in a world filled with choices, many people opt for entertainment rather than education, for trivia rather than signia.

There is no panacea for these challenges in spreading signia and learning.  Yet there are pedagogical opportunities educators have not fully seized.  Here’s one opportunity I invite others to join me in pursuing: if learning happens not just in but out of school, not just actively but passively, and if signia is power, let us print signia on the surfaces of everyday life – vital health information on napkins and tabletop tents in school cafeterias and restaurants, informative pie charts and lists on drink coasters in bars, science and history on cups and cup sleeves in cafes, poetry and philosophy on cereal boxes and wallpaper, and more.  Let such surfaces become invitations to learning which can be connected easily to further learning online for fun and reward.

If life is learning, let learning live.

Paul Lachelier, Ph.D.
Founder, Learning Life