The industrial economy that typified the twentieth century has been replaced by what has been dubbed the “knowledge” economy. And experts agree that while the industrial economy was driven by productivity, the knowledge economy is and will be driven by ideas.
Yet, conventional wisdom is—perhaps ironically—that, in the knowledge economy, what you know isn’t all that important. At least not compared with what you can do with that knowledge. Just this week, New York Times contributor Thomas Friedman shared the “wisdom” of Tony Wagner who argued:
Because knowledge is available on every Internet-connected device, what you know matters far less than what you can do with what you know.
In other words, we needn’t overmuch trouble ourselves with making sure students know a lot. Indeed, because we have mobile encyclopedias at our finger tips, skills development should be the focus of American schools, and content should be used in service of honing the “twenty-first century skills”—creativity, innovation, collaboration, critical thinking—that the knowledge economy demands.
Unfortunately, Wagner and Freidman get it exactly backwards for three reasons.
1. Knowledge is cumulative.
People’s ability to learn new information depends entirely on what they already know. That is why, absent intensive intervention, achievement and knowledge gaps grow exponentially, not linearly. This is seen clearly in the early years with what the “vocabulary gap,” which starts small but grows to as many as 30 million words by the time children reach age three.
In a twenty-first-century context, that means, essentially, that...