Learning Objects: Teach Me Knowledge: Why study the facts?

 Why Study the Facts?

As cognitive psychologist Daniel Willlingham argued, you can’t think creatively about information unless you have information in your head that you can think about. “Research from cognitive science has shown,” he explained, “that the sorts of skills that teachers want for their students — such as the ability to analyze and think critically — require extensive factual knowledge” (Willingham 2009, p. 25).  We have to know things, in other words, to think critically about them. Without any information readily available to us in our brains, we tend to see new facts (from our Google searches) in isolated, noncontextual ways that lead to shallow thinking.

Facts are related to other facts, and the more of those relationships we can see, the more we will prove capable of critical analysis and creative thinking. Students who don’t bother to memorize anything will never get much beyond skating the surface of a topic.”

Willingham, D. (2014). Why don’t students like school? A cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

As a simple illustration of the intertwinement of facts and thinking, consider the example of a trial lawyer who has to build an argument over the course of a trial, responding on short notice to witnesses or actions by the judge. We might thinking about a lawyer who works skillfully in such a situation as an adept and creative thinker, one who respond quickly on her feet and can construct arguments with facility. But if we listen to her making those arguments, we are likely to hear lots and lots of facts: legal principals, examples from other famous cases, statements from other witnesses, and so on. Undoubtedly, the lawyer in this case demonstrates complex cognitive and creative skills in building arguments from all of those facts, but no such thinking will arise without those facts. More important, the lawyer’s gradual mastery of a body of facts, over the course of years of study and legal practice, enables her to take what she is encountering in this trial and invest it with meaning by connecting it with previous cases and trials, thus better preparing her for the next round of critical thinking in the courtroom. Likewise, I know that if I ask my students to think critically about the meaning of a Romantic poem in my literature survey course, the student with a deep factual knowledge of the historical context in which it was written will offer me a better analysis than the one who just eyeballs it and Google a few facts at random. We need factual material in our memory for every cognitive skill we might want to teach in our students.

James M. Lang. 2016. Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning. First edition.. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

How to study the facts: Mix things up!

Varying the type of material studied in a single sitting — alternating, for example, among vocabulary, reading and speaking in a new language — seems to leave a deeper impression on the brain than does concentrating on just one skill at a time. Musicians have known this for years, and their practice sessions often include a mix of scales, musical pieces and rhythmic work. Many athletes, too, routinely mix their workouts with strength, speed and skill drills…

When students see a list of problems, all of the same kind, they know the strategy to use before they even read the problem, said Dr. Rohrer…

These findings extend well beyond math, even to aesthetic intuitive learning. In an experiment published last month in the journal Psychology and Aging, researchers found that college students and adults of retirement age were better able to distinguish the painting styles of 12 unfamiliar artists after viewing mixed collections (assortments, including works from all 12) than after viewing a dozen works from one artist, all together, then moving on to the next painter.

The finding undermines the common assumption that intensive immersion is the best way to really master a particular genre, or type of creative work…”

Carey, Benedict. 2010. “Research Upends Traditional Thinking on Study Habits.” The New York Times, September 6.

Mita Williams
December 2016