The Content Comeback: Why Knowledge Matters to Thinking and Learning

Content knowledge has gotten a bad reputation in recent years. It’s become synonymous with dry facts, elitism, and conservatism. E. D. Hirsch, Jr., a strong proponent of content knowledge, has been demonized by progressives who have positioned his theory as the antithesis of creativity and critical thinking. According to opponents of content knowledge, what we need isn’t more facts and information, but rather “design thinking,” “creative problem solving,” and “project-based learning.”

There are several cultural and academic trends driving the critique of content knowledge. For one thing, the ubiquity of the internet makes memorizing facts seem unnecessary; what’s the point of knowing information by heart when you can just look things up in Google? With limited time and classroom resources, it seems more worthwhile to focus on higher-level reasoning skills rather than memorizing information. Another reason to berate content knowledge is that as a country, we’re not very good at it. Scandinavian and Asian countries consistently outperform the United States in international standardized tests, particularly in the STEM fields. Undermining knowledge and instead celebrating other qualities of American education such as creativity and innovation provides a convenient response to our deficit. Finally, emphasizing content knowledge puts lower-income students at a disadvantage: ever since researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley famously documented the word gap between low-income kids and their wealthier counterparts, we’ve been acutely aware that content knowledge is not an equal playing field, and that kids who start out in knowledge-poor homes have a very hard time catching up. Standardized tests are routinely criticized for their cultural bias and the fact that their content privileges knowledge that is unfamiliar to lower-income and minority students.

Nonetheless, we are fooling ourselves by denying the critical role that content knowledge plays in reading and thinking. Cognitive research continues to uphold the importance of content knowledge in understanding academic material and the world around us. In this post, I dig into that research to make a case for reevaluating content knowledge in the classroom.


Content knowledge is essential to understanding what we read

All writers makes assumptions about what their readers know. A sports columnist will not remind his or her readers about the basic rules of football. A novelist will use figurative language that relies on a reader’s ability to infer non-literal meaning. Even math and physics problems involving trains, ramps, and pendulums assume that students are familiar with these objects and how they work. As E. D. Hirsch, Jr. puts it, “Writers assume that readers know some things but not others. [...] That is exactly how new information is always offered: it is embedded in a mountain of knowledge that readers are expected to have already in their long-term memories.” A student who is unfamiliar with that mountain of knowledge will be lost when encountering a text that presumes that the reader is familiar with it.

Students who lack content knowledge miss out on the meaning of what they read, even if they look up every word of the text in the dictionary. The first line of the iconic poem “Casey at the Bat reads, “The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville nine that day.” You can look up “Mudville” and “nine” in the dictionary, but unless you know something about baseball, you will not understand that the poet is referring to a local town’s baseball team. Teaching students reading strategies such as looking up unfamiliar words or writing in the margins will not overcome this knowledge deficit.

[New information] is embedded in a mountain of knowledge that readers are expected to have already in their long-term memories.
— E. D. Hirsch, Jr.

Even in cases where looking up terms does provide valuable insight, there is only so much we can hold in our working memory before we can no longer follow the meaning of the text. Take this sentence from an article on string theory: “According to Einstein's theory, a relativistic equation has to use coordinates that have the proper Lorentz transformation properties.” As someone who is not an expert in this topic, I can read an encyclopedia entry on Einstein’s theory of relativity, then look up an article on relativistic equations, then figure out what a Lorentz transformation is. By that time, I’m holding three significant new pieces of information in my working memory and trying to connect them. It’s quite a bit to mentally juggle, and that is only one sentence from a much longer article. Readers who are familiar with these terms are able to mentally chunk them and create more room in their working memory to make sense of the text.

Content knowledge is the foundation that enables us to make sense of what we read. A seminal study by Recht and Leslie has shown that content knowledge is a better predictor of a student’s understanding of a text than reading ability; students who are familiar with the relevant content of an article understand it better than do their peers who are presumed better readers. A 2010 study on the impact of a content-rich curriculum in lower grades revealed that students develop better reading comprehension when they have the background knowledge to understand the texts they read (Stockard 2010). More recently, New York City schools that implemented a content-rich curriculum saw improved performance in reading, social studies, and science. We do students a disservice by not exposing them to the content knowledge they need to be effective readers.


Content knowledge is essential to critical thinking

In the broader conversation about twenty-first century skills, we are often reminded that success in an increasingly automated, artificially intelligent world demands non-routine, creative thinking. In education, this translates to a focus on critical thinking and analysis at the expense of content knowledge. According to this logic, higher-level reasoning skills are what we need to emphasize because that is what machines cannot take away from us. Content knowledge seems like a waste of time given that we can outsource data storage to computers.

But the dichotomy between content knowledge and higher-level reasoning skills is misleading: we may think we are privileging deeper learning when we focus on skills rather than content, but the former depends on the latter. We cannot challenge an assumption unless we have evidence that contradicts it. We cannot create connections between ideas unless those ideas are already stored in our memory. When an expert encounters a new piece of information in his or her field, he or she can situate it in a web of existing knowledge and assess the new content relative to what he or she already knows. When a novice encounters a new piece of information in an unfamiliar field, he or she can only accept it at face value.

Metacognitive skills depend on content knowledge. In the case of reading, cognitive scientist Daniel T. Willingham points out that teaching reading strategies in the absence of content is a fruitless endeavor: reminding students to summarize what they’ve read or monitor their own comprehension will yield little benefit if the students cannot grasp the content of what they are reading. If the text does not make sense because a student lacks background knowledge, re-reading or diagramming the structure of the text will not help much. The Rand Study Group, which analyzed research around reading comprehension to deliver a report on best practices in teaching, supports this conclusion: “Unless the [cognitive] strategies are closely linked with knowledge and understanding in a content area, students are unlikely to learn the strategies fully, may not perceive the strategies as valuable tools, and are less likely to use them in new learning situations with new text.” Students need a foundation of knowledge in order to effectively apply higher-level cognitive skills.

Teaching reading strategies is a low-cost way to give developing readers a boost, but it should be a small part of a teacher’s job. [...] Acquiring a broad vocabulary and a rich base of background knowledge will yield more substantial and longer-term benefits.
— Daniel T. Willingham, "The Usefulness of Brief Instruction in Reading Comprehension Strategies"

As for outsourcing content knowledge to computers, what we often neglect is that machines are not especially good at evaluating the quality of the information they receive. Inexperienced researchers who rely on Google for answers to their questions will often be led astray by popular but inaccurate sources. This is because determining whether a piece of information is valid requires content knowledge: an expert in media history comes across a website describing the invention of the audion and knows immediately whether the source is legitimate or not. A novice comes across this same website and can only hope that the information is accurate. Even STEM fields, where technology plays a pivotal role, require educated people to run a sanity check on the numbers they receive: in 1999, NASA lost a $125 million Mars orbiter because of a miscommunication about whether the measurements were done in standard or metric units. We cannot expect machines to replace our brains when it comes to knowledge.


Conclusion: Bringing content back

The question now is how to bring content knowledge back into the curriculum. The first step is for teachers to value content knowledge and challenge students to acquire it. Rather than assigning an article on teenagers’ texting habits, teachers could ask students to read a foreign affairs piece or an op-ed science article. This would expose students to information that is likely not part of their day-to-day life and that is important to their broader understanding of the world.

Effectively teaching content also depends on the teacher’s ability to discern what students do and don’t know. Students’ answers to questions and their comments in discussion will likely reveal the gaps that exist in their background knowledge. Teachers will need to then scaffold class reading, point students to appropriate resources, or provide the background knowledge themselves in order to help students fill the gaps.

This is no easy task, particularly when teaching students with significant deficits in content knowledge. However, undermining the importance of content knowledge or focusing exclusively on cognitive skills in the hope that students will acquire content knowledge on their own is not a viable solution. Being well-informed has always been, and continues to be, essential to being an effective reader and thinker.


Works Cited:

Recht, D. R., & Leslie, L. (1988). Effect of prior knowledge on good and poor readers' memory of text. Journal of Educational Psychology, 80(1) 16–20.

Stockard, J. (2010). Promoting reading achievement and countering the "fourth-grade slump": The impact of Direct Instruction on reading achievement in fifth grade. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, 15(3) 218–240.

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