Recently I have been reading Daniel T. Willingham’s book entitled Why Don’t Students Like School?. While I have not finished the book yet, I found the first two chapters extremely enlightening. Willingham mimics the cries we hear so often in education about the importance of critical thinking and problem solving skills over simply memorizing things. He also asks why some of our greatest thinkers, who knew many facts, took delight in ridiculing schools and characterizing them as factories for the “useless memorization of information”. The underlying assumption today is that it is better to have students evaluate information and think critically rather than put energy into memorization. Of course, we all would probably agree that knowing your facts is important, but we have to admit the drum beat for critical thinking skills often overshadows the importance of facts and having a strong background knowledge. Perhaps, this is because content can be consumed so fast and so easily with computers and the internet. Therefore, we may feel it necessary to dedicate classroom time to developing skills first.
Nevertheless, research from cognitive science has shown that the ability to think critically and solve problems requires extensive factual knowledge. This knowledge, according to Willingham’s research, must precede skill building.
Willingham goes on to talk about the importance of background knowledge for critical thinking, evaluation and problem solving. He introduces us to the concept of chunking, the tying together of different pieces of information in order to keep more information or factual knowledge in your working memory. He writes about a study wherein background knowledge is shown to help people understand what they read better. In the study, students were classified as good or bad readers based on standard tests they took. The student’s reading was about baseball, and the students who did the best on the reading comprehension were those who had some background knowledge of the sport. Even if the students were designated “bad readers” by the prior standardized test, they still outperformed the “good readers” because they had background knowledge about the topic. Background knowledge allows chunking which helps to create more room in your working memory. With more room in your working memory, it is easier to relate ideas and ultimately comprehend.
Why is this important for educators? There is the phenomenon called the fourth grade slump which refers to the fact that students from underprivileged homes do not score as well as students from privileged homes on 4th grade reading comprehension tests after doing similarly well on the tests in 3rd grade. One factor Willingham suggests for the slump is the 4th grade reading tests looked more to assess and measure reading comprehension whereas the prior tests focused more on decoding words. Comprehension depends on background knowledge, and here students from privileged homes have the advantage because research shows they come to school with a bigger vocabulary and more knowledge about the world around them than students from underprivileged homes. Since having background knowledge makes it easier to learn new things, then the gap between privileged and underprivileged kids can continue to increase each year.
Willingham goes on to demonstrate the importance of background knowledge over reasoning by looking at chess: the ultimate thinking person’s game. He argues that what separates the best chess players in the world from one another is their ability to memorize, not reason nor plan the best move. Chess matches usually provide players a lot of time to think about their next move, but sometimes they have blitz tournaments which move much faster. What is interesting here is that the best players tend to win each match whether they have more time or less time to plan a move. What gives these players the edge is not their time to think and plan the next move, but rather their ability to memorize the different winning board positions. Research has shown that the world’s top chess players may have up to fifty thousand board positions memorized. Therefore, background knowledge is decisive in chess which contradicts most opinions of chess as primarily a game of reason.
Nowhere in this book has Willingham suggested that it is not important to develop the skills to think critically and solve problems, but he has highlighted the importance of knowledge in developing these skills in our students.