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Science on Learning: Knowledge Precedes Skill

Don't rush applying new information before it becomes knowledge.

This is the fourth article in a series on how cognitive science provides empirical support to the methods of a classical education. First, we outlined that learning takes time and reflection. Second, we noted that learning is most efficient when cognitive limits are respected. Third, we saw the significant impact that a breadth of foundational knowledge has on enhancing learning. Now we will move into our fourth principle: Learning knowledge precedes learning skill.

It is nearly impossible to discuss education without someone arguing that skills such as critical thinking and problem solving are more important than just learning facts. However, these should not be thought of as being at odds with one another. In fact, they are necessarily interlocked. How well a person is able to think critically or solve problems is primarily determined by how strong their knowledge of relevant facts is in that particular domain.

We live in a world in which people are constantly seeking to rush to make everything personal. They read a verse from Scripture and want to immediately jump to application—what does this mean to me? The problem with this is that such action fails to follow the sequential process for the best learning: knowledge first, and then application of skills. When reading a Bible verse, interpreting Scripture properly rests on context—within the verse, within the larger book, from the type of writing being used, and so forth. Applying the skill of interpretation correctly rests primarily on our knowledge. Can we distinguish between poetry and ancient biography? Do we recognize the larger story of the Bible? Do we understand the words used by the author? All of these are knowledge questions, and each must be answered affirmatively before we can appropriately interpret scripture.

The same is true in the classroom. Often, teachers begin a new topic for learning and want to immediately jump into doing—let’s do the science lab first, because that is the most fun! The problem here is again immediately manifest. If I do not know what I am looking for, I am likely to make irrelevant or erroneous suggestions. I would be far better prepared to apply the skills of science if I was already equipped with relevant background knowledge.

What can teachers do to leverage this principle to enhance learning?

  • As a general rule, avoid pure discovery learning.

There is romantic appeal to the notion that children learn naturally and that, if we get out of their way, creativity and deep learning will occur. This view, however, lacks evidence to support it. Rather, such pure discovery methods have been tried time and again and found severely lacking in comparison to guided learning environments where knowledge is put into place before students apply concepts to discover knowledge. For the most part, teachers would be wise to avoid pure discovery learning and ensure that knowledge is built first before moving toward stages of skill application.

  • Promote good question-asking by exposing students to relevant background knowledge first.

Often people have students ask questions about something interesting to help capture their attention. While the practice is not bad in and of itself, it often brings irrelevant points to the fore. Promote good question asking by equipping learners with relevant background knowledge before asking them to generate questions about something. This will lead to better questions and promote wisdom; learners will adhere to Aristotle’s ancient saying: “The wise man speaks when he has something to say; the fool speaks because he has to say something.” Train your learners to be patient and to build up the knowledge base before spouting off uninformed ideas.

Mayer, R.E. (2004). “Should there be a three-strikes rule against pure discovery learning? The case for fully guided methods of instruction.” American Psychologist, 59(1): 1-14.
Tricot, A., & Sweller, J. (2014). “Domain-specific knowledge and why teaching generic skills does not work.” Educational Psychology Review, 26: 265-283.

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