Technology is remarkable. On my phone, I can access a dictionary, a calculator, weather and traffic reports, the Bible, the news, what people are thinking about any given topic at this very moment, a field guide, a whole library of eBooks, and of course, if I don't know the answer to a question, I can just ask Siri to google it.
With all of that knowledge accessible from my phone, why learn anything at all?
I recently reread an article titled "How Knowledge Helps" by Daniel T Willingham, who is the author of a whole slew of books about how people learn and education in America. During a time when I was researching what really worked in education, I was influenced enough by the conclusions of articles like this and books like The Knowledge Deficit, by E D Hirsch to make more time in our homeschool day for literature, history, and science than I did for the three Rs.
A wide base of general knowledge is key to unlocking the doors of learning. Here are a few takeaways from "How Knowledge Helps" to support why:
Knowledge is Essential for Reading Comprehension
"The ability to read a text and make sense of it is highly correlated to background knowledge." --from "How Knowledge Helps" by Daniel T Willingham
When I read, there is a wide gap in my understanding of topics that I know about and topics I don't know much about at all despite the fact that my reading ability is very high. I can read a play by Shakespeare with better comprehension than a scientific article written in modern English because of the presence or lack of background knowledge.
If I were to read several recaps of sporting events, I would understand an article about baseball better than an article about football. And I would understand the football article better than the article about cricket.
Kids are no different than adults. They read with greater understanding when they already know the topic they are reading about. Is your child into dinosaurs, astronomy, or birds? She probably is a stronger reader on that topic than she is on any other scientific topic.
"People with rich general knowledge rarely have to interrupt reading in order to consciously search for connections." --from "How Knowledge Helps" by Daniel T Willingham
General knowledge means not having to google a fact or a definition in the middle of reading just to understand what is going on. When we can read uninterrupted, we understand more and learn more.
A Base of Knowledge Makes Future Learning Easier
"(Knowledge) makes learning easier. Knowledge is not only cumulative, it grows exponentially. Those with a rich base of factual knowledge find it easier to learn more--the rich get richer." --from "How Knowledge Helps" by Daniel T Willingham
The child who learned about the history of Ancient Israel in sunday school will have an easier time fitting the histories of Ancient Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, Greece, and Rome into his understanding of ancient history, because all of their histories are intertwined.
A child well acquainted with mythology through a book like D'Aulaires Book of Greek Myths, will have an easier time understanding many literary allusions in literature and poetry.
A child with knowledge of the natural world around her will have a much easier time when she studies biology formally that a child who does not have similar experience.
Simply knowing something about a subject makes it more likely that new knowledge will "stick."
Knowledge is a Prerequisite for Critcal Thinking
"If we want our students to think critically, they must have something to think about." --from "How Knowledge Helps" by Daniel T Willingham
In other words, if you don't know anything, you really don't have much to think about. Workbooks and activities that promote critical thinking skills are generally bunk since they are usually separated from the real building of the knowledge base for actual critical thinking.
In real life, we can't critically think about something that we know nothing about. I can't throw together a dinner with whatever-is-in-the-fridge if I don't have a basic knowledge of cooking. I can't pop the hood of my car and figure out what is making that weird sound if I have no knowledge of the inner workings of cars. I can't form a real opinion on the daily news if I don't have a knowledge of politics and history. Day to day life requires critical thinking and problem solving to make it through and without the right knowledge, we can't think or problem solve our way through life.
Application: What I do to Ensure My Kids have a Broad Base of Knowledge
I adopted Charlotte Mason style short lessons around the same time I decided that I was going to make sure that my kids had a content rich education. This ensured that I could hit every subject, every day and still be done by lunch.
Being exposed to a wide variety of books is the best way to increase a child's knowledge. We visit the library weekly, and for my younger kids I check out a variety of picture books from a variety of sections including: general picture books, folktales and fairy tales, natural science, art and hobbies, poetry, and history.
My my oldest son loves reading about imaginary worlds, funny stories about kids his age, war stories, and mythology. When I plan his reading list for the school year, I intentionally include types of books and topics he wouldn't pick up on his own such as, biographies, historical fiction, and classic children's literature.
I also cycle through eras of history and science topics with the whole family so we can build a broad base of knowledge that will be foundational to the rest of their education.
For Further Reading
ED Hirsch Jr also addresses the need for a knowledge based education in The Knowledge Deficit: Closing the Shocking Education Gap for American Children
I really want to read the book When Can You Trust the Experts?: How to Tell Good Science from Bad in Education, by Daniel T Willingham because I am so tired of seeing crazy educational practices that are supposedly "research based" but in real life seem to be confusing students.
Thanks for reading!
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