You've got to know to grow

Two searing articles in the current edition of American Educator, one by E.D. Hirsch, Jr. and one by Daniel T. Willingham, lay to rest the notion that critical thinking is possible sans content. Hirsch argues (in an excerpt of his new book) that without adequate general knowledge, reading comprehension scores will remain flat. He demonstrates his point with a simple sentence: "Jones sacrificed and knocked in a run." Both Americans and Brits could "de-code," or read, the sentence, but only Americans would understand it. That's because we share a common knowledge about baseball that allows us to interpret "sacrifice" and "run" properly. This common, or "core," knowledge is critical for improving reading comprehension, Hirsch argues, and without a nationwide curriculum to help develop this knowledge reading scores will continue to lag. Willingham debunks the idea that "rote" knowledge is useless. The common belief, for example, that students can substitute calculators for memorizing multiplication tables causes problems in the long run. The failure to memorize this material severely hampers one's ability to function at higher mathematical levels. "The more knowledge students accumulate," Willingham says, "the smarter they become."  One might even say that knowledge is power.

"Building knowledge," by E.D. Hirsch, Jr., American Educator, Spring 2006

"How knowledge helps," by Daniel T. Willingham, American Educator, Spring 2006

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