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American Federation of Teachers
How Can Learning Facts
Make Thinking More Enjoyable -- and More Effective?
by Daniel T. Willingham
In the main article, I defined "thinking" as combining information in new ways. The information can come from longterm memory--facts you've memorized -- or from the environment. In today's world, is there a reason to memorize anything? You can find any factual information you need in seconds via the Internet. Then too, things change so quickly that half of the information you commit to memory will be out of date in five years -- or so the argument goes.
Perhaps instead of learning facts, it's better to practice critical thinking. Have students work at evaluating all that information available on the Internet, rather than trying to commit some small part of it to memory.
Appealing though it may be, it turns out that this argument is false. Data from the last 30 years lead to a conclusion that is not scientifically challengeable: thinking well requires knowing facts, and that's true not simply because you need something to think about. The very processes that teachers care about most -- critical thinking processes like reasoning and problem solving -- are intimately intertwined with factual knowledge that is in long-term memory (not just in the environment).
It's hard for many people to conceive of thinking processes as intertwined with knowledge. Most people believe that thinking processes are akin to those of a calculator. A calculator has a set of procedures available (addition, multiplication, and so on) that can manipulate numbers, and those procedures can be applied to any set of numbers. There is a separation of data (the numbers) and the operations that manipulate the data. Thus, if you learn a new thinking operation (for example, how to critically analyze historical documents), it seems like that operation should be applicable to all historical documents.
The human mind does not work that way. When we learn to think critically about, say, the start of the Second World War, that does not mean that we can think critically about a chess game, or about the current situation in the Middle East, or even about the start of the American Revolutionary War. The critical thinking processes are tied to the background knowledge.*
Much of the time that we see people apparently engaged in logical thinking, they are actually engaged in memory retrieval. As I described in the main article, memory is the cognitive process of first resort. When faced with a problem, you will first search for a solution in memory, and if you find one, you will very likely use it.
In fact, people draw on memory to solve problems more often than you might expect. For example, it appears that much of the difference among the world's best chess players is not their ability to reason about the game or to plan the best move; rather, it is their memory for game positions. When tournament-level chess players select a move, they first size up the game, deciding which part of the board is the most critical, the location of weak spots in their own defense and their opponents', and so on. That process relies on the player's memory for similar board positions and it greatly narrows the possible moves that the player might make. Only then does the player engage reasoning processes to select the best among several candidate moves. Psychologists estimate that top chess players may have 50,000 board positions in long-term memory. Thus, background knowledge is decisive even in chess, which we might consider the prototypical game of reasoning.
That's not to say that all problems are solved by comparing them to cases you've seen in the past. You do, of course, sometimes reason. Even in these situations, background knowledge can help. Here's an example. Do you have a friend who can walk into someone else's kitchen and rapidly produce a nice dinner from whatever food is around, usually to the astonishment of whoever's kitchen it is? When that person looks in a cupboard, she doesn't see ingredients, she sees recipes. She draws on extensive background knowledge about food and cooking.
Here's a classroom-based example. Take two algebra students -- one is still a little shaky on the distributive property, whereas the other knows it cold. When the first student is trying to solve a problem and sees a(b + c), he's unsure whether that's the same as ab + c or b + ac or ab + ac. So he stops working on the problem, and substitutes small numbers into a(b + c) to be sure that he's got it right. The second student recognizes a(b + c), and doesn't need to stop and occupy space in working memory with this subcomponent of the problem. Clearly, the second student is more likely to successfully complete the problem.
Here is one more key point about knowledge and thinking skills. Much of what experts tell us they do in the course of thinking about their fields requires background knowledge, even if it's not described that way. Let's take science as an example. We could tell students that when interpreting the results of an experiment, scientists are especially interested in anomalous (that is, unexpected) outcomes. Unexpected outcomes indicate that their knowledge is incomplete, and that this experiment contains hidden seeds of new knowledge. But in order for results to be unexpected, you must have an expectation! An expectation about the outcome would be based on your knowledge of the field. Most or all of what we tell students about scientific thinking strategies is impossible to use without appropriate background knowledge.
The same holds true for history, language arts, music, and so on. Generalizations that we can offer to students about how to successfully think and reason in the field may look like they don't require background knowledge, but when you consider how to apply them, they actually do.
Daniel T. Willingham is professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Virginia and author of numerous articles, including his regular "Ask the Cognitive Scientist" articles for American Educator. To read more of his work on education, go to http://www.danielwillingham.com. This article is excerpted from his new book, "Why Don't Students Like School?"