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.