Schools Focus on Teaching Shallow Knowledge, But Fail

I currently lead a reading group focused on topics of education and schooling at our local library, with an emphasis on the science and psychology behind learning.[1] This month’s reading was Why Don’t Students Like School? by Daniel Willingham.[2] The book failed to address the many reasons why students do not like school, but it did serve as a good primer on how students learn.[3] Much of the book centers on the mental processes of thinking, and the limitations  our working memory places on it. 

As Willingham points out, the “lack of space in working memory is a fundamental bottleneck of human cognition.” In spite of the awesome potential of the human brain, we simply cannot engage in higher order thinking unless we have sufficient factual knowledge, find ways to chunk information, and automate certain functions of thinking.[4] Factual knowledge is the knowledge of terminology, details, and elements necessary to engage a topic. Factual knowledge is the base level of knowledge that is needed on which to build off of.[5] To convert a variety of information into chunks (and less complex chunks into more complex chunks), we typically go through the process of active thought in order to coalesce that information into chunks that are placed into long-term memory so that we can access them in the future.[6] While it may seem inefficient to have to convert information into chunks that reside in our long-term memory if we are only going to utilize them on a one-off basis, it makes higher order thinking much more efficient and possible by freeing up working memory capacity.

All of this makes sense, and there is little to argue with in terms of his broader explanation into how learning works. However, there is much to take issue with when it comes to his views on the role of schools. Willingham spends an entire chapter on the importance of factual knowledge and how to acquire it. He clearly articulates how shortcomings in factual knowledge hampers thinking and learning in various ways, with an appropriate focus on how it undermines reading comprehension. And he makes clear that he believes it is the responsibility of schools to fill the minds of young people with the factual knowledge necessary to do higher order thinking in the future.

At the same time, he recognizes that there are some serious shortcomings in the actual delivery of education through schools, and even he seems to shrug his shoulders at the reality that the overwhelming majority of what students learn is soon forgotten.[7] He offers some suggestions for ways to mitigate this problem, but he does not see the problem as serious enough to question the medium. Although he would probably protest this claim, he goes so far as to suggest that all of the wasted time in schooling not really learning much is not necessarily bad because “shallow knowledge is better than no knowledge.”

But do we need to subject young people to years of schooling in order for them to have a broad but shallow store of knowledge?  He thinks the answer is yes because he sees learning and young people primarily through the lens of school. He does not consider that deep and meaningful learning experiences can happen outside of school or in lieu of school. His view of students is a view of incompetence and a lack of belief in their ability to do serious work while they are still young. This unfortunate view does not just carry itself through primary or secondary school, but even into college and graduate studies.

The reality is that his views are handicapped by his failure to recognize that traditional schooling is not the preferred medium for intellectual development. When students are subjected to age-based standardized curriculum in oppressive environments that prioritize classroom management over dynamic learning, then the best we can hope for is a large store of shallow knowledge for the overwhelming majority of students. But after 13 years of captive schooling, the education establishment fails to clear even that very low bar.

Willingham should know better than to believe that we need schools for transmission of shallow knowledge, because he points to a better way in the same book. He recognizes that one of the best ways to pick up factual knowledge is to read. He states, “Books expose children to more facts and to a broader vocabulary than virtually any other activity [emphasis added], and persuasive data indicate that people who read for pleasure enjoy cognitive benefits throughout their lifetime.”

If reading books (and newspapers and magazines) is superior to lectures, assigned homework, quizzes, and tests, then why not just give young people access to libraries and forgo all of the pain and trauma associated with schooling? Instead of trying to find ways to supplement schooling with required reading, why not supplement reading with opportunities to discuss ideas and experience the world?



3.     The reason Willingham did not answer the question as to why students do not like school may be because his goal was to sell his book to teachers and school administrators, who do not want to be reminded that the practices and structures of schooling are the primary reason that students do not like school. I could have written an essay on how Willingham could have answered the question, but Peter Gray has already written that essay:

4.     We will forgo a discussion of automatizing mental processes in this essay. However, the ability to tie shoelaces, ride a bike, operate a manual transmission vehicle, type on a computer, and read prose without having to sound out every word are all examples of automatized mental processes that allow one to engage in complex behaviors without having to actively think about them.

5.     According to Bloom’s Taxonomy, factual knowledge is the lowest form of knowledge, which is associated with the lowest form of cognition (remembering).

6.     Although there is disagreement as to how many “chunks” of information can reside in working memory at one time, and acknowledging that it fluctuates from person to person, it is generally accepted that a normal span of chunks ranges from seven digits to six letters to five words. More complicated ideas, principles, or theories further reduce the number of chunks that one may be able to efficiently hold and utilize within working memory at a time. See work by GA Miller and Nelson Cowan for more on chunking.

7.     The failure of students to remember the overwhelming majority of lessons they are taught in school is not a secret, and has been written about extensively. A recent essay by a father of straight-A students covered this reality. Unfortunately, this father did not begin searching for a solution to the problem after identifying the problem.