No. In fact, here's why knowledge might be more important than ever.
At Cerego, we work every day to help people build knowledge and quantify what they know. That’s because creativity, deep understanding, and expertise rely on foundational knowledge. However, while there are many educational software platforms out there, very few focus on retention and memory—the keys to building knowledge. Below, we’ll outline exactly how knowledge supports our learning, understanding, reasoning, and creativity, and explore some of the scientific evidence behind the value of knowledge.
Many advocates for education reform hold that developing the four C’s (creativity, critical thinking, collaboration and communication) is now more essential than developing core knowledge (Mishra & Mehta, 2017). And the focus on learner proficiency in those categories is well-founded.
In the last three decades, the US has shifted from an industrial to a service economy, fueled by technology and innovation. In 2016, around 80% of the value in the S&P 500 was represented by intangible, idea-based assets, such as brands, patents, software, and research. The workforce needed for this new economy consists of capable thinkers, communicators, and collaborators. Yet, the majority of them will also have a smartphone available for ‘just in time’ access to information—more than 90% of 18-29 year olds have a smartphone (Pew Research Center, 2017).
So, if we constantly have access to Google, is there a need to remember anything? Can we outsource our knowledge and still realize the full potential of our minds? Has knowledge become obsolete?
In short, well, no.
In fact, the opposite is true. Far from being obsolete, knowledge is critical to cognition for at least three reasons:
- Prior knowledge helps us take in new information
- Prior knowledge allows us to think and reason more effectively
- Prior knowledge leads us to retain more of what we learn
Knowledge benefits every stage of the learning process.
“As you first take in new information (either via listening or reading), as you think about this information, and as the material is stored in memory.” (Willingham, 2006)
Knowledge helps us take in new information
Developmental psychologists have long held that people construct understanding out of what they already know and believe (Piaget, 1952; Vygotsky, 1978). We retrieve much more than just facts from memory: Our perception of new information is shaped by our prior knowledge, including our expectations and biases (Dror et al, 2005). This is referred to as ‘top-down processing.’ In short, our prior knowledge is always running in the background, and having more of it is a distinct advantage.
Learning science literature supports the notion that knowledge helps us think and problem solve more easily. So much so, in fact, that it suggests that the brilliance of experts across fields may be largely due to their fluent access to domain knowledge, rather than a superior intellect.
The National Research Council (2000) summarized several key principles of expert knowledge. Among them are that:
- Experts notice features and meaningful patterns of information that are not noticed by novices
- Experts have acquired a great deal of content knowledge that is organized in ways that reflect a deep understanding of their subject matter
- Experts are able to flexibly retrieve important aspects of their knowledge with little attentional effort.
If it were possible to outsource all domain knowledge to Google, we would expect that to come at a cost to both the speed and quality of our thinking, as well as our potential to become masters of a field.
Knowledge helps us process information
Problem solving takes cognitive resources. ‘Working memory’ is the term used to describe the set of processes that temporarily hold ‘active’ memories or information ‘online’ in our attention, so that memory may be used in service of cognition (Cowan et al, 2005). This system is notoriously limited: 7 (plus or minus 2) items being the widely known 'magic' number for what we may hold online at any given time (Miller, 1965).
Without any prior knowledge, simply understanding a problem can consume most of our working memory capacity (Willingham, 2006). Internalized knowledge frees up our cognitive resources to make inferences, create strategies, and monitor our own approach to problem solving.
Knowledge lets us retain more of what we learn
Simply put, it is easier to remember new information when it's related to a familiar topic. Learning occurs more readily when we can attach new information to an existing knowledge framework.
For example, Beier and Ackerman (2005) found that domain knowledge of health topics significantly predicted retention of both lecture and homework content in a sample of adults. Hambrick (2003) found that the ability to remember basketball news was directly related to prior basketball knowledge.
Prior knowledge may also influence learning outcomes by increasing motivation for learning. There is evidence that readers with greater background knowledge adopt better strategies for reading and express more interest in their topic (McNamara & Kintsch, 1996). Armed with a foundation, it becomes easier, more engaging, and more satisfying to deepen our knowledge on an existing topic than to begin anew.
The future of knowledge
As our society becomes more technologically connected, the importance of achieving fluency over the core knowledge and skills of one’s career discipline has not diminished. Kereluik and colleagues (2013) reviewed the value of knowledge in the 21st Century, concluding that everything has changed and nothing has changed:
“The world of the future will continue to depend on specialized knowledge (or domain knowledge), and high-level cognitive skills (such as creativity and critical thinking). These skills ... are required for successful learning and achievement in any time.”
Innovation will come through people that have deep knowledge of more than one discipline, and are able to form new connections between the two (cross-disciplinary knowledge). The need to keep knowledge in our heads remains just as vital as it ever was, even though the types of knowledge 'worth knowing' may vary across contexts.
As Mishra and Mehta (2017) point out, ‘content neutral’ creative thinking is a myth.
“What is ironic is that those who are emphasizing the four C’s (creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, communication—or what we are calling meta-knowledge) do not realize that being successful in each of these requires disciplinary and cross-disciplinary knowledge. It is a mistake to think that creativity or collaboration or communication can happen in a vacuum. What will one be creative about?”
And we agree: The question for the future of education isn’t whether we should build knowledge. It’s how.
At Cerego, our adaptive learning software helps learners build foundational knowledge by using a combination of cognitive science and machine learning to drive retention. When you retain the information, and retain it for the long term, then you build a base of knowledge that allows you to process new information, and think creatively. The first key is to remember the information, then to understand it—a process that ultimately unlocks our creative potential.
- Beier, M. E., & Ackerman, P. L. (2005). Age, ability, and the role of prior knowledge on the acquisition of new domain knowledge: promising results in a real-world learning environment. Psychology and aging, 20(2), 341.
- Cowan, N., Elliot, E. M., Saults, J. S., Morey, C. C., Mattox, S., Hismjatullina, A., et al. (2005). On the capacity of attention: Its estimation and its role in working memory and cognitive aptitudes. Cognitive Psychology, 51, 42-100.
- Dror, I. E., Peron, A. E., Hind, S. L., & Charlton, D. (2005). When emotions get the better of us: the effect of contextual top‐down processing on matching fingerprints. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 19(6), 799-809.
- Hambrick, D. Z. (2003). Why are some people more knowledgeable than others? A longitudinal study of knowledge acquisition. Memory & cognition, 31(6), 902-917.
- Kereluik, K., Mishra, P., Fahnoe, C., & Terry, L. (2013). What knowledge is of most worth: Teacher knowledge for 21st century learning. Journal of Digital Learning in Teacher Education, 29(4), 127-140.
- McNamara, D. S., & Kintsch, W. (1996). Learning from texts: Effects of prior knowledge and text coherence. Discourse processes, 22(3), 247-288.
- Miller, G.A. (1965). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. The Psychological Review, 63 (2), 81-97.
- Mishra, P., & Mehta, R. (2017). What We Educators Get Wrong About 21st-Century Learning: Results of a Survey. Journal of Digital Learning in Teacher Education, 33(1), 6-19.
- National Research Council. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school: Expanded edition. National Academies Press.
- Pew Research Center (2017, January 12). Mobile fact sheet. Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/fact-sheet/mobile/
- Piaget, J. (1952). The origins of intelligence in children (Vol. 8, No. 5). New York: International Universities Press.
- Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher mental process. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Willingham, D. T. (2006). How knowledge helps: It speeds and strengthens reading comprehension, learning-and thinking. American Educator, 30(1), 30.