Why I care about the difference, and dependence, between facts and skill

Lately I have found myself drawn into commenting on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ blog over at the Atlantic. For a regular columnist, I find him a sophisticated commentator on issues of race, class and American history, as well as a writer whose prose is a joy to read. But what really drew me in was the other commenters on the blog, who can range from an interesting conservative construction worker from Baltimore, to a former teacher/ current boat builder to hyperliterate out-of-work librarians and former teachers. In other words, kindred spirits. During a few recent posts (one on the Huck Finn controversy), I found myself ranting about something that most there seemed to feel was tangential to the issues at play; the fact that skills are based on a rich knowledge of facts. But it got me thinking about why I care so much about cognitive psychological distinctions that few people seem to care about. My answer is that the fallacies I rail against are the foundation of much of modern day education reform, and have an impact on even poor old Mark Twain.

What is the relationship between facts and skills? Many people believe that we need basic cognitive skills to learn things. In other words, the skills come before the facts. For example, you need basic reading skills to appreciate literature, learn more history. You need basic math skills like adding, subtracting, etc to move up to algebra and geometry. You need critical thinking skills to evaluate scientific findings. While this view makes sense to many of us, who know how to read, and know basic math, as we imagine that the rest of the things that we know are dependent on our basic reading and math skills.
This view is wrong.
What we think of as academic skills are based on a rich foundation of background knowledge. We think of all of these facts as furniture, decorating a structure held up by strong skills, but it is exactly the opposite. Rich content knowledge makes skills possible, not the other way around. People certainly had rich amounts of knowledge before the widespread use of the printing press, much of it was not gained through reading. Kids manage to learn incredible amounts of information before they can read. But we take all of this knowledge for granted, because we have forgotten that we even needed to learn it. At one point in your life, the meaning of the word “banana” was a fact that you had just learned. At another point, the word “forget” or “moment” or “count” or “knowledge.” We have forgotten those moments, so we don’t realize these things are memory; we don’t count them as knowledge. Obviously the previous sentence would be gibberish without the vocabulary that I just mentioned. In addition, without “forget, moment, count or knowledge” you wouldn’t start to learn the new words of “realize” and “memory.” Facts let you learn more facts.
I was reminded of the importance of background knowledge as my boys were learning to read. Caleb was having trouble decoding (going from the groups of letters to the sounds they make) and testing behind in reading. But at the same time, we were reading to him, he was surrounded by picture books, and he enjoyed narratives and learning new things, whether they be the difference between types of camels (“the dwomadawy has one hump, but the Bactwian has two, and is from Mongolia, dad”) or the difference between a town, a city, a state, a county, a country, and a continent. While he took a little bit longer than others to be able to decode, Caleb’s reading “skills” have now miraculously vaulted forward. The point (other than to brag about my kid) is that he was never really behind. He had a rich background of facts, of building materials, and was held up just briefly waiting (well, actually working hard with the help of dedicated teachers) for decoding to happen. I don’t mean to minimize the fantastic job they did at his school with helping kids who have trouble reading, or the hard work that Caleb put in, but decoding happens. It takes longer for some kids than others, and it is no small thing to teach, but it does happen. And when it does, because most of us who know how to read as adults can decode just fine, the foundation for learning more is not our decoding skills, but our background knowledge. My colleague Dan Willingham has a great post about this, interpreting some test scores showing how our performance relative to other countries is lower in high school. The point is that it is lower in high school precisely because we are hammering on decoding and forgetting about the rich content knowledge. While the emphasis on skills is prevalent in elementary school, its effects are felt in high school, and in college too. One of my colleagues told a heartbreaking story recently, in which a student came up to her during a final and asked what the word “cumulative” meant. This student did not need more basic reading skills. He needed more facts. And he needed them in middle school, when he was busy being drilled for the SOL’s.
This is an example for reading, but it is equally true for “critical thinking,” even in college. We would love to have the general ability to dissect a problem, analyze its parts, and evaluate its solutions. But such a skill does not exist. I can do that fairly well with a psychology experiment (ok, maybe a cognitive psychology experiment, ok, maybe a visual perception experiment), but if I am evaluating the politics in Iran, or a medical diagnosis, or a book on the history of physics, I am kidding myself if I don’t realize that I am an amateur (and to the extent that I am an advanced amateur, it is because of extensive amateur reading I have done on medical diagnoses, or the history of physics). Skills are generally a lot more domain restricted than we would like to think.
I have written here about how this leads people to propose silly redesigns of the college curriculum, with classes on “7 Essential Skills You Didn’t Learn in College,” one of which was applied cognition (“the neuroscience you need”). All of those skills are dependent on background knowledge. Other people propose that we just teach kids “how to search” and “how to evaluate online sources” and then they don’t need to know any facts because they know how to find whatever they need. Unfortunately, this is not a skill. Knowing how to parse google search listings for the right links, or peruse Wikipedia and actually learn something while avoiding the controversial or unsupported errors is a skill that is dependent on content-specific knowledge.
What is the best way to acquire facts? Reading lots of books. That’s it. Being interested in stuff, and reading about it. Somehow our educational system has forgotten this. If a student gets interested in Star Wars, or furniture design, or spiderman, or environmental law, or drug policy, give them a few books, and let them go to town. Of course, we should have an idea of what we think they will find interesting, and give them some of that too (race in America? Social psychology? Autism?). But their patience with our books will wane if we keep telling them to put theirs down.
Which brings me to the basis of education reform, and the furor over Huck Finn. Many education reform arguments go like this:
1)American education is failing our students, and we are falling behind our international competitors.
This statement is often made based on international tests, such as the PISA, or the lack of improvement on our own standardized tests such as the NAEP. These tests are most often of basic reading and math. It often goes unchallenged that these are reflective of the rest of our education system.
2) To catch up, we need to catch up on these tests (or, if our reforms cause us to catch up, we would notice it on these tests).
This has two meanings. First, we need to narrow the “achievement gap.” What the achievement gap most often means is that performance of poor, urban (mostly black and Hispanic) students is below performance of white and wealthy students on these tests of basic skills. This often leads to the well intentioned effort to work these poor children harder (more test prep drilling, school on Saturdays, no recess) so that they can catch up on these tests. This approach has not been a resounding success.
The second is that we need to narrow the gap between the US and other countries on these basic skills. For this, the logic is somehow that to remain economically competitive, we must be educationally competitive. Yet if we look at the innovations that have kept the American economy strong over the past 50 years, they are not the amazing basic skills of the workforce, but the amazing creativity of a relatively small group of Americans. This creativity has occurred with the aid of different sorts of programs. Malcolm Gladwell outlines how Bill Gates was able to access a computer very early on in his education.
3) The best way to catch up is to increase accountability and teacher quality
Accountability measures have taken the accountability out of the local hands (principals) and urged greater standardization. To have standardized accountability, you must rely on a measure everyone agrees matters. Enter tests of basic skills. Principals and teachers, railroaded by the particular kind of standardized accountability instituted by reformers, drop everything and do more test prep.
Which leads them to drop books from the curriculum, because who has time to read a book when you need to boost your test scores ten points or lose your job, or get your school closed? And so, yes, Huck Finn has always been censored, and always been controversial. But teachers have been teaching it. But teachers are just exhausted from dealing with the pressure to raise test scores, who has the time and energy to deal with trying to explain to teenagers the complex motives of Huck Finn, and the satirical wit of Mark Twain?
In the end, we have the paradox that our students spend a lot more time practicing these basic skills and less time learning facts, when the time comes to actually show that they have these skills, they don’t perform well because they have no background knowledge, not to mention not much interest, because in our mad dash for skills, and accountability and performance, we stopped asking them what they were interested in.
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About Cedar Riener

College psychology professor, husband, father.
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