The industrial economy that typified the twentieth century has been replaced by what has been dubbed the “knowledge” economy.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 your ability to absorb new information gathered through Internet research—or to think critically about that information—depends almost entirely on what you already know. And employers aren’t looking for people to spend hours poring over voluminous materials trying to get up to speed on their work. On the contrary, they need people who already have a strong knowledge base on which they can build quickly. In fact, in a knowledge economy, where employees are being asked not to perform rote tasks but to demonstrate deep understanding of information and generate ideas, what individuals know matters more than ever.
2. Innovation is the result of iteration, not spontaneous discovery.
Newton, we’re told, “discovered” gravity when an apple fell on his head while resting under a tree. Would that all discovery were that simple—or that is was the spontaneous result of “critical thinking” that was detached from deep knowledge and expertise.
The reality—both about Newton and about innovation itself—is far more complex. Newton came up with his theory of gravitation after years of careful study of physics and mathematics. Indeed, he was the greatest mathematician of his time. And, the apple story is only partially true:
Newton was grappling in the late 1660s with the idea that terrestrial gravity extends, in an inverse-square proportion, to the Moon; however it took him two decades to develop the full-fledged theory.
So, Newton’s discovery was the result of decades of close and careful study, the highlight of which was a capstone “Eureka!” moment that would never have happened without the twenty years that preceded it.
And so it is with all innovation: Our greatest discoveries are brought to us by experts who have generally spent years honing their work through, small, seemingly insignificant iterative changes that add up to major accomplishments. Innovation, therefore, is the result of deep expertise and craftsmanship.
Even more than that, the kinds of innovation that the knowledge economy demands and will continue to demand are likely to be the discoveries that are born of making connections between seemingly unconnected things. And that will require that our students are broadly knowledgeable in a host of subjects, not just that they perseverate from a young age in a single area. Steve Jobs, a champion of the knowledge economy, was well known for studying everything from fonts to mathematics, and he drew on this broad and deep knowledge base to inform his work. True innovators are, at their core, masters: content masters, that is, not master manipulators.
And so, our students need not less coherent curriculum and not more practice with skills, but rather they need deep understanding of mathematics and science, they need to be well read, and they need exposure to art and music. Educators are right to push against rote, because mechanical regurgitation of knowledge is not the same thing as deep understanding. But in today’s economy, a classic liberal education focused on knowledge acquisition and analysis is far more likely to prepare our students than content-lite curricula that prize skill above all else.
3. In an interconnected world, producers need to be experts.
Tony Wagner has argued:
There’s no competitive advantage today in knowing more than the person next to you. The world doesn’t care what you know. What the world cares about is what you can do.
Nothing could be further from the truth. In the twenty-first century, at a time when organizations are far-flung and people can work from anywhere, and can learn from almost anyone, the employees who will add the most value will be the ones who are the best —the most knowledgeable. The middlemen will be cut out and the masters will be left.
And so our job as educators is to ensure that all students have a knowledge base that is as broad and deep as it can be. Indeed, as we’ve learned by seeing ninety-five year olds tweet, and octogenarians on computers, skills can be learned far more quickly than knowledge can be accumulated. And pretending that content mastery is somehow less important than skills acquisition will give us a generation of consumers, who know only how to consume the knowledge they have easy access to, but not how to contribute to its evolution and to new discoveries.
Our schools need to evolve and our curriculum and instruction does need to change to meet the needs of a future generation of leaders.
But it’s important to learn the right lessons from our contemporary heroes. Yes, they are all creative, interesting, and critical thinkers and able to navigate and benefit from an increasingly complex and interconnected world.
But they got there by committing themselves to becoming masters of their craft: They are true experts whose broad and deep knowledge in their subject area has paved the way for the innovative thinking that has changed our world. And in that way, despite all the communications advances of the last few hundred years, the world really hasn’t changed that much at all.