A key insight from the cognitive science of learning, as cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham puts it, is that “comprehension depends on background knowledge.” Elsewhere Willingham states that “[c]ritical thinking processes are tied to background knowledge.” Why?
The idea is that our working memory – what we’re currently thinking about right now – has a limited capacity. I can only think about so many things at one time. So, if we have to remember a bunch of background facts, it’s hard to process and think critically about something new; our cognitive processes are all tied up trying to remember various facts, so we don’t learn nearly as much as we could. This is, btw, a great argument for any parents out there struggling to respond to their child’s claims that they don’t have to memorize facts, because they can just go look them up online. By doing so, your kids, in fact, are making learning new things seriously more difficult for themselves, and will end up behind other people who bothered to memorize stuff and don’t now have their working memory complicated by trying to remember their multiplication tables and solve a new algebraic equation, too. Simply put, the more we already know about something, the easier it is to learn more. This is why our students’ background knowledge has an enormous impact on their future learning: they not only avoid a messy kind of cognitive overload by having to look up facts all the time, but they can learn new things quicker because they’re connecting it to background knowledge they already have (and why, say, some students coming into college aren’t “smarter” than others, but some may have more background knowledge, which makes it easier for them to pick up new information).
I mention this because I just had to look something up in Willingham’s wonderful book Why Don’t Students Like School? to get some info for a grant I’m finishing up, and this passage caught my eye:
The effects of knowledge described in this chapter also highlight why reading is so important. Books expose children to a broader vocabulary than virtually any other activity, and persuasive data indicate that people who read for pleasure enjoy cognitive benefits throughout their lifetime …
The school librarian should be a tremendous resource and ally in helping children learn to love reading, and she is arguably the most important person in any school when it comes to reading.
I thought this would be of interest to librarians: given the basic 101 stuff about memory I outlined at the beginning of this post, librarians, especially school media specialists, can have a huge impact on students’ future learning and critical thinking, because the more one likes to read, the more background knowledge they’ll pick up. Reading good books not only has enormous emotional benefits, it has huge cognitive benefits, too.
Real interesting, I think, in explaining the crucial – and hugely substantive role – librarians can play in education, and also another really interesting takeaway from the science of learning that librarians can apply, and use to advocate for, their work with students.