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-timeĀ 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.

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