Factual Knowledge Must (Not?) Precede Higher Order Thinking

Last year, Tom Sherrington put out a recap of “evidence-informed ideas every teacher should know about.”

His statement about Bloom’s taxonomy goes like this:

“Never teach in a way that relegates knowing things to the bottom of the pile, placing creativity and ‘synthesis’ at the top, or get overly bogged down in ideas about ‘higher order thinking skills’ as if they are separate from knowing things.  They aren’t.

Re-think your sense of Bloom’s taxonomy to view knowledge that is the foundation of all else – and knowing things for the sake of it is good. Because there is always a sake and knowing things never stifles creativity; one fuels the other.”

In this summary, Sherrington makes a strong case for the primacy of factual knowledge. In this view, learners simply can’t undertake “higher order” thinking skills — like synthesis or creativity — without a strong foundation of factual knowledge.

Among teachers, this principle may be best known from Daniel Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School? He sums up the matter briskly as chapter 2’s core principle:

“Factual knowledge must precede skill.”

Of course, many scholars have rejected this perspective. Best known among them, Jo Boaler has insisted that math education currently relies excessively on memorization of disconnected facts.

Rather that drill times tables, she argues, teachers should prompt inquiry, exploration, and curiosity.

In other words: we can get to the top of the pyramid without worrying overly about the bottom layer.

Yes, but What Does Recent Research Show?

Researcher Pooja Agarwal specializes in cognitive science, with a focus on memory formation. In fact, she’s particularly keen on doing research in classrooms — not just psychology labs — to ensure that research findings generalize to real-world learning.

(We’ve interviewed Dr. Agarwal for the blog before. And, she’ll be offering a one-day Learning and the Brain seminar on powerful teaching in April.)

Agarwal recently explored the relationship between factual knowledge and skill. Her findings might surprise you. (They certainly surprised me.)

Contra Willingham, Agarwal found that …

“…building a foundation of factual knowledge via retrieval practice did not enhance students’ higher order learning.”

Instead, students did best when the form of the practice questions matched the form of the test questions. (‘Higher order’ here means ‘higher on Bloom’s taxonomy.’):

“Fact quizzes enhanced final fact test performance and higher order quizzes enhanced final higher order test performance.”

That is: when students didn’t review a particular set of facts, they could still reason with them — as long as they had practiced doing that kind of reasoning.

Ultimately, Agarwal ends up advocating for “mixed” practice quizzes, which include both factual and ‘higher order’ questions. (Here‘s a link to her latest blog post summarizing this research.)

Lots More to Learn

Willingham has not yet responded to Agarwal’s study. I don’t doubt that he will; keep an eye out on his blog.

In fact: I haven’t seen any research response to this study. It will be a fascinating debate to watch.

I suspect one line of debate will go like this: Agarwal’s study creates a plausible way to measure the tension between “factual knowledge” and “higher-order thinking.” However, that difference as measured in this study might not be just what Sherrington and Willingham mean.

As you can infer, these differences get technical quickly. Rather than dig into them now, I think teachers should have two responses:

First: be very happy that thoughtful people will be rigorously testing this highly complicated question. We really do need to know the answer to this question…and we don’t yet.

In fact, we probably don’t even have the right vocabulary and the right categories to answer it yet.

Seconddon’t yet make any big changes based on this research.

I hope that Agarwal’s study will launch a fresh round of investigation. We should wait to see where that leads us before we make big school plans.

category: L&B Blog

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *