What you know strongly influences what you can learn

What you know strongly influences what you can learn. This principle applies to facts, experiences, and personal theories. From my perspective, it is one of the core principles of how learning happens that some ignore. Google search is not the answer to limited background knowledge. Of course, Google offers a remedy when you need a way find information, but many cognitive processes happen in real time when immediate recognition is essential and any disruption in immediate recognition comes at a substantial cost to understanding.

I have been writing lately about educational tribalism and the concern I have that the models of learning promoted within some tribes ignore the science of how learning happens. Putting down the importance of factual knowledge is one example of what I have observed. The factual knowledge a reader has available while reading is extremely important and studies show that the factual knowledge relevant to the topic of what is being read is more important than general comprehension skill. Since I believe that reading is probably the most important process by which we learn, belief systems that limit the application of this skill should be very troubling. I assume that the same principles apply to other real-time learning experiences (listening), but my background is more focused on how people learn from reading.

So, when it comes to learning from social media, I recommend that educators include some learning researchers within their feeds. To return to my example, here is a post on reading comprehension from Larry Cuban sharing a New York Times op-ed from Daniel Willingham. This post makes the case for the importance of existing knowledge in reading comprehension. I think Willingham does a good job of explaining the implications of cognitive research.

P.S. I do wish folks would include citations. Willingham’s description of the soccer knowledge study is new to me. I remember a very similar study (Recht & Leslie, 1988) making the same argument using knowledge of baseball to demonstrate how this knowledge was more important than reading skill in comprehending the description of a baseball game. Sports knowledge works well for this type of research as it is uncorrelated with reading skill and it would be possible to find groups of poor readers with great knowledge of the sport to contrast with good readers with poor knowledge.


I just finished evaluating the final projects for my grad Instructional Design and Technology course and one project raised some questions in my mind. The student’s project concerned the underrepresentation of women in STEM careers and particularly in computer science. Her analysis of the literature raised many of the familiar concerns – few female-oriented┬áSTEM toys, lack of positive role models and presence of negative role models, lack of career development in K12, and unresponsive higher education course experiences. The arguments were not new to me. My wife and my textbook reviews pretty much the same talking points in our chapter on programming.

I am certain there is an extensive literature on why and how individuals pursue specific careers. I am not familiar with this literature, but I assume it exists. This post is not about this topic. This post is about K-12 educators getting caught up in some causes and not others.

There is no doubt that fewer females than males pursue careers in computer science. Recent data I found claims that only 18% of the undergraduate majors in computer science are female. If one assumes that aptitude for computer science is randomly distributed for both males and females, it follows that those pursuing careers do not offer the best talent the country could bring into this important field. So, the underrepresentation of females with an interest in coding has become a very visible subtheme with the promotion of STEM. Hour of Code (early exposure to what programming is and programming careers) and more focused efforts (#girlswhocode) are popular educational efforts to address this issue.

My own professional experiences have provided me with a perspective on careers I would like K12 educators to consider. I have a science background (major in biology – a pretty much gender neutral STEM field) and advanced degrees emphasizing educational and cognitive psychology (again pretty much gender neutral fields of Psychology). However, I did spend much of my professional career as the administrator for a Psychology department with an emphasis on preparing clinical psychologists. If you investigate the graduation data for what I would describe as the employment level degree for mental health professionals – clinical psychologists, counseling psychologists, child clinical psychologists and school psychologists (these are careers requiring advanced training and a license to practice), you find some interest sex differences. 19% of recent school psychology graduates are male, 23% of school psychologists are male, 22% of clinical psychologists are male, and 23% of counseling psychologists are male. With the exception of developmental psychology, these are pretty much the only degrees that show this gender imbalance.

So, I would ask you to use your own experience to consider whether you have ever heard a K12 educator lament the failure of the education system to interest males in mental health issues? It cannot be that this is an irrelevant question as mental health problems have great public visibility and are a significant national challenge. If you look at the perspective of a client in need of services, I am guessing few with a programming task would care if the task was completed by a male or a female programmer. I can tell you with certainty that when it comes to clients needing clinical services, the clients can have preferences for whether their problems are addressed by a male or a female clinician.

So, educators, you tell me. Why have you become so interested in STEM and are willing to ignore mental health? Maybe no one has ever brought this problem to your attention. Now you know.