The more we know, the easier it is to know more

The idea that we no longer need to be taught knowledge, because of the easy availability of information on the internet, is gaining traction. This fallacy displays a misunderstanding of neuroscience. Here, I set out the reasons it is still imperative to teach factual knowledge to students.

Denigrating knowledge is not just anti-intellectual, it leads to anti-egalitarian outcomes, widening the gulf between the highest and lowest achievers. Given a child’s vocabulary when they start school is the best predictor for their future success, the importance of instilling knowledge and building vocabulary must begin at an early age. Educational disadvantage starts early with some children coming from knowledge-rich home environments and others from culturally impoverished backgrounds. By focusing on knowledge and building cultural capital, schools close this gap, which, if not addressed, continues as children progress through the education system.

It is only with an extensive and diverse vocabulary that children progress, work independently and stay focused in class, without losing the thread of what they are being taught. Without this foundation, pupils struggle to build knowledge, leading to poor educational outcomes and feelings of low self-esteem and worthlessness.   

What this reveals is that in order to gain knowledge, we need knowledge; to put that another way, the more we know, the easier it is to know more. This is where an awareness of neuroscience is particularly important. The brain has a limited working memory, capable of holding around five new pieces of information simultaneously. Lack of space in our working memory acts as a barrier to human cognition. It means that we rely on our long-term memory in order to free up capacity in our working memory when solving complex problems. 

Every time we resort to the internet, we use space in our working memory, and the ability to process new information becomes increasingly impaired. In practice, it means when we have worked out the first part of a problem, we end up forgetting the second part because of our poor working memory. Suppose there are 24 articles in this magazine and it takes seven minutes to read each. How long would it take to read the magazine? If your times tables are not committed to long-term memory you would have had to work out your sums individually, giving rise to the likelihood of overloading your working memory. 

Pupils who perform well in working memory tests, score highly in reasoning tests, revealing those with greater working memory capacity are more able thinkers. If we want to empower young people we need to make their working memory capacity more efficient, and this is best achieved through factual knowledge. Better still, if this information can be ingrained to long-term memory, mental processes become automatised, making room in working memory for other processes. Of course technology gives us information at our fingertips but it is only through the acquisition of accumulated knowledge that we are able to problem solve, research and assimilate new information effectively. 

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