Willingham’s Knowledge Base

Dan Willingham looks at the knowledge base problem as it relates to reading and the draft national standards. This issue — the capacity of the field to deliver a powerful enough curriculum to make these standards real — is an important one.

2 Replies to “Willingham’s Knowledge Base”

  1. I think I’ll stop reading Willingham is he persists in making stuff up.

    He writes, “Prior knowledge is vital to comprehension because writers omit information. For example, suppose you read “He just got a new puppy. His landlord is angry.” You easily understand the logical connection between those sentences because you know things about puppies.”

    It is no such thing. The two sentence have the form of an explanation. The landlord is angry [because] he got a new puppy. Nothing should be inferred regarding the cause of the landlord’s anger: it may easily be allergies, dislike of yapping dogs, town bylaws about animals, or blind prejudice. And inference that involves the putative ‘knowledge’ about puppies would be an error.

    In fact, the inference as to the structure of the explanation is based on much more generation, the observation that one statement is propositional (a ‘fact’) and the other expresses an attitude (an ’emotion’), and while facts explain emotions, emotions do not (generally) explain facts (though an _honest_ reader would leave open that he purchased the puppy in retaliation for the landlord’s persistent and unreasonable anger).

    Appealing to ‘facts’, especially when you’re just making them up, leads to terrible reasoning, and even worse educational theory.

  2. I think I’m more or less on the same page as Willingham on this issue. Countless people complete their P-12 schooling unable to competently and confidently read a newspaper or a good book. I suspect that one reason for this is that these individuals lack the vocabulary (including specialized, disciplinary vocabulary) and the content knowledge to make sense of what they find in unfamiliar writings.

    A major counterexample, however, is the case of students reading in a foreign language – including English language learners and English native speakers learning another language. I remain unable to fluently and quickly read a newspaper or novel in Japanese despite 10 years of study – but that doesn’t reflect my content-area or disciplinary knowledge. It does, however, reflect my limited vocabulary in that language.

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