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Why learning facts is still important

An open book with numbers hovering above it

Given that fact-based knowledge is so accessible (due to the internet) is there a case for not teaching them at all?

According to Don Tapscott, a tech consultant and speaker, memorising facts and figures is a waste of time because this information is readily available. He argues, it would be far better to teach students to think creatively so that they can learn to interpret and apply the knowledge they discover online.

Teachers are no longer the fountain of knowledge, the internet is

- Don Tapscott

Is this the solution for educators with a crammed curriculum? Perhaps they can remove facts and focus on skills development? After all, it’s the skills that matter most. Knowing is useful, but it’s the ability to apply that really matters …right?

What makes you an accountant?

When you start to learn about finance, you will be taught a number of underpinning foundational subjects including: law, economics, costing and of course basic accounting.

Sat within the accounting section will be ‘double entry bookkeeping’. The value of this concept is fiercely protected by the finance community.

But is the knowledge around ‘moving numbers, in a consistent fashion’ that useful in a world where most accounting is performed by computers and sophisticated algorithms?

Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts

- Daniel Patrick Moynihan

Knowledge is power

Ultimately there are many benefits to learning facts and building knowledge.

Daniel T. Willingham, a psychologist at the University of Virginia*, conducted research around: the brain, learning, and memory, but more recently focused on cognitive psychology in education.

Willingham argued that knowledge is not only cumulative, but it grows exponentially. In addition, factual knowledge enhances our mental abilities such as problem solving and reasoning.

Knowledge is cumulative

The more you know, the more you can learn. Individual chunks of knowledge will stick to new knowledge, because what you already know provides context and aids comprehension.

For example, knowing the definition of a financial bond ‘a fixed income instrument that represents a loan’ enables us to grasp ideas around credit, borrowing and debt.

So this particular chunk of knowledge has a greater impact outside of allowing you to comprehend a single fact.

Knowledge helps you remember

The elaboration effect has featured in a previous blog. In essence it suggests that the brain finds it easier to remember something if it can be associated with existing information.

Using the same example from above, it’s easier to remember that bonds are risky if you already knew what a bond was.

Knowledge improves thinking

There are two reasons for this. Firstly, it helps with problem solving.

Imagine you have a problem to solve, if you don’t have sufficient background knowledge, understanding the problem can consume most of your working memory, leaving no space for you to consider solutions.

This argument is based on the understanding that we have limited capacity in our working memory. So to use it up trying to comprehend something we should already know slows down the problem-solving process. Worse case scenario, it could prevent you from finding a solution at all.

Secondly, knowledge helps speed up problem solving and thinking. People with prior knowledge are better at drawing analogies, as they gain experience and expertise in specific areas.

Research conducted in 2004** compared the performance of top chess players at normal tournaments with those at blitz tournaments. He found that what was making some players better than others is differences in the speed of recognition, not faster processing skills.

Players who had knowledge of prior games were far quicker in coming up with moves than those who were effectively solving the problem from first principle. Chess speed has a lot to do with the brain recognising pre-learned patterns.

Long live double entry bookkeeping!!

This is an interesting topic and highlights the difficult path curriculum designers have to tread when it comes to removing the old to make space for the new.

As discussed above, there is a strong argument to suggest that core principles and foundational knowledge are essential prerequisites for efficient learning.

But whatever happens, we need to keep double entry bookkeeping, not just because knowing that every debit has a credit is important. It also helps structure a way of thinking and problem solving that has enabled finance professionals to navigate significant complexity and change since Luca Pacioli allegedly invented it in 1494.

The Learn Better blog is a series of evidence based stories from the world of education, with a common theme - to inspire and motivate students. They are mostly based on original articles/blogs by Kaplan's Head of Learning, Stuart Pedley-Smith.

*Author of a number of books including, ‘Why students don’t like school’.
**By Dr Bruce Burns,Senior Lecturer, School of Psychology, University of Sydney.
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