Core Knowledge: A Lifeboat in the Sea of Information

by Guest Blogger
July 29th, 2013

Here’s a question I’m often asked: Now that we have Google and smartphones are becoming less expensive, isn’t the Core Knowledge approach obsolete?

For anyone who knows that (1) cognitive science shows that having some relevant knowledge already stored in long-term memory is essential to reading comprehension and critical thinking and (2) Core Knowledge is about providing a broad base of skill-enabling knowledge in preschool through eighth grade, the answer is obviously “No.” If anything, Google makes the Core Knowledge approach even more essential. In a sea of information, young people need a lifeboat.

(Lifeboat in the sea of digital information courtesy of Shutterstock.)

Fortunately, at least some of those who are up on smartphones and down on memorization are realizing that knowledge is necessary. Take, for example, a July 25th article on Scientific American’s website: “Smart Phones Mean You Will No Longer Have to Memorize Facts.” It starts with a bit of a straw man about memorizing the presidents. Do you need to be able to rattle off the presidents? Probably not. But can you really grasp US history without solid factual, contextual, and conceptual knowledge stored in your long-term memory about Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, etc.? No.

What I find most interesting about this Scientific American article is that it greatly downplays the need for memorization—but then in a sidebar it highlights the need to commit to memory pretty much everything in the Core Knowledge Sequence! I think we have a simple case of the author, a knowledgeable adult, taking the broad knowledge he learned early in life for granted.

In the article, we read:

Maybe we’ll soon conclude that memorizing facts is no longer part of the modern student’s task. Maybe we should let the smartphone call up those facts as necessary—and let students focus on developing analytical skills (logic, interpretation, creative problem solving) and personal ones (motivation, self-control, tolerance).

Of course, it’s a spectrum. We’ll always need to memorize information that would be too clumsy or time-consuming to look up daily: simple arithmetic, common spellings, the layout of our hometown. Without those, we won’t be of much use in our jobs, relationships or conversations.

Then in the sidebar, “6 Reasons Smartphones Won’t Replace Our Brains,” we read:

We’ll never consult our phones for everything. Some things are so important we’ll have to commit them to memory even if we reach the age of universal digital retrieval. Here are a few of the life categories where memory will always beat digital lookups….

  • The Cultural Factor: You can’t function for long in society without some basic grounding in history and culture. Without knowing these references you won’t have the context to comprehend current events—or even know what you’re missing or what questions to ask. You won’t understand advertisements, editorials or even news articles. And you won’t get anybody’s jokes. You’ll be unemployable and undatable….
  • The Productivity Factor: Even if your daily work requires something you could easily look up, like molecular weights, stock symbols or commonly prescribed drugs, your work would bog down to a halt if you had to interrupt your flow every few minutes for a lookup. You need fluency in your own career facts to operate effectively.
  • The Lookup Factor: Our gadgets may always be able to call up information on demand—but only if you know how and where to look for it. You still have to know how to use the tools of modern up-lookings: like Rotten Tomatoes, Wikipedia, or—What’s the other one? Oh, yeah—Google.

What does a “basic grounding in history and culture” consist of? What knowledge is needed to “understand advertisements, editorials or even news articles”? Those are questions E. D. Hirsch asked three decades ago. His research—and that of many cognitive scientists—found that a great deal of content knowledge was needed in long-term memory to function as a literate adult. Through a series of studies Hirsch and his colleagues identified the specific knowledge that is most essential—and then that became the Sequence.

For a well-researched and thoughtful look at the impact of Google on education, let’s turn to “Do Learners Really Know Best? Urban Legends in Education,” an article by Paul Kirschner and Jeroen J.G. van Merriënboer that was recently published in Educational Psychologist:

[One] legend has it that all that one needs to know and learn is “out there on the web” and that there is, thus, no need to teach and/or acquire such knowledge any more. This has led, for example, to the demotion of the teacher from someone whose job it was to combine her/his knowledge within a domain combined with her/his pedagogical content knowledge so as to teach those lacking this knowledge to someone whose role is standing on the sidelines and guiding and/or coaxing a breed of self-educators. These self-educators can self-regulate and self-direct their own learning, seeking, finding, and making use of all of the information sources that are freely available to them….

The premises underlying the idea of substituting information seeking for teaching is that the half-life of information is getting smaller every day, making knowledge rapidly obsolete, and because it is all out there on the web, we should not teach knowledge but should instead let kids look for it themselves….

The idea that the present body of knowledge is rapidly becoming out of date or obsolete is far from true. First, a distinction needs to be made with respect to the difference between knowledge obsolescence and information growth…. The fact is that much of what has passed for knowledge in previous generations is still valid and useful. What is true is that there is an increasing amount of new information becoming available, some of it trustworthy, some not….

Although students are often thought of as being competent or even expert in information problem solving (i.e., that they are information and digitally literate) because they are seen searching the web daily, research reveals that solving information problems is for most students a major if not insurmountable cognitive endeavor…. Learners not only have problems finding the information that they are seeking but also often trust the first thing they see, making them prone to “the pitfalls of ignorance, falsehoods, cons and scams”….

Prior knowledge largely determines how we search, find, select, and process (i.e., evaluate) information found on the web…. Unfortunately, in most cases students’ prior knowledge of the subject matter is minimal. From research, it is known that low prior knowledge negatively influences the search process….

This leads to essays on Baconian science with texts about the 20th-century British artist Francis Bacon and on the problems that Martin Luther King had with Pope Leo X and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

Since research clearly shows that effectively using the internet requires knowledge, does that mean students should be kept offline when they are first learning about a topic? I don’t think so. Later in their article, Kirschner and van Merriënboer discuss ways teachers can direct and support students’ learning online and offline. The key takeaway is pretty simple: don’t expect students (of any age) to be able to Google effectively about topics that are new to them. One obvious option appears: limit their research to a small pool of trusted sources.

Museums, libraries, and other cultural institutions have been particularly great about making online collections teachers can draw from for engaging, but appropriately limited, online research. I couldn’t possibly list even a small fraction of the good ones, so I’ll close by noting one I recently learned about: the Primary Source Sets created by the Library of Congress. There are more than two dozen sets, designed for classroom use, on topics ranging from baseball to women’s suffrage.



  1. Here’s good support for the notion that information growth does not render existing knowledge obsolete. Much of the following information remains highly useful.

    Comment by Chuck Granger — July 29, 2013 @ 5:13 pm

  2. Languages are a case in point. If you try to look up words in a language you don’t know, you may go far astray, since you aren’t familiar with the grammatical forms. The word may have prefixes and suffixes; a vowel or consonant in the root may change (in the plural, for instance). But if you have a foundation in the language, you probably know how to make sense of a text (unless it is extremely colloquial, elliptical, specialized, or allusive).

    Comment by Diana Senechal — July 29, 2013 @ 7:18 pm

  3. I had an attorney tell me he thought kids did not need to memorize recently, they just needed to look it up on a smartphone. I asked him if he would accept a new associate who said he did not need law school, just needed Westlaw to look up cases. Surprise surprise did not think that was enough they needed to understand the concepts of law. Knowledge to me is like the mother, few of us appreciate how little we could accomplish without those supports, but they often feel all but invisible to us.

    Comment by DC Parent — July 29, 2013 @ 7:33 pm

  4. Smart phones are mostly used for socializing not education. Google is useful for looking up information but you must have background knowledge to put the information in context and truly understand it.
    The Core Knowledge Foundation Curriculum starting in pre-K is essential!!!

    Comment by David J. Krupp — July 30, 2013 @ 12:13 pm

  5. I don’t see smartphones as a threat to learning, but just the inevitable miniaturization of computers. They augment and extend school learning. And, as you say, without background knowledge, how would anyone know what question to start with? And when you arrive at the target page, do you want to spend an hour following the embedded links to understand the terms and context?

    What does concern me is that most people using smartphones don’t understand how they work and could care less. I saw it happen with cars, then PCs and now smartphones. Maybe it’s the engineer in me, but I think understanding how things work makes people self-sufficient and better users. When did we stop teaching how things work?

    Comment by Tom Sundstrom — July 30, 2013 @ 2:04 pm

  6. I had a professor in college a few years back assert exactly the above ideas, i.e. that kids can look everything up on their phones. She extended that idea to basic grammar, punctuation, and spelling saying that programs like MS Word can substitute for those skills. I guess she didn’t know what homonyms are.

    Her class was my introduction to Postmodernism. We read Saussere, Lacan, and all of the rest of the mostly French theorists. Postmodernism is really the wellspring from which a litany of bad education policies originate. As E.D Hirsch and others have pointed out, Rousseau was another whose ideas have been harmful. The average person doesn’t know anything about Postmodern theory and is thus in no position to grasp where the ideas came from and how to counter them. According to Hirsch, the French have avoided applying Rousseau’s and the Postmodernist’s ideas to education, which is confounding to say the least since the British and Americans swallowed them whole.

    Comment by Jim — July 30, 2013 @ 2:33 pm

  7. @Jim- I remember doing a presentation in grad school on Post-modernism in international relations theory. My professor was floored because I could explain the theories so well and my answer was that I came from an old fashioned undergraduate program that went back to the Greeks and made you read the source material behind the theories. I actually could understand the critiques they were making. Ironically those most advocating the theories could not understand their underlying theory because they had never read the material being analyzed. I have to agree post modernism is a huge problem, but more than anything because it has allowed people to be sloppy about reading the past. There really is not an escape to reading the atecedants of an arguement or theory. To me this is the problem with education reform, you can’t overcome years of wasted time, somehow, someway you have to do the reading, connect the historical ideas, do the math problems, perform the experiements that build new ones. There is just no magic bullet outside of hardwork.

    Comment by DC Parent — July 30, 2013 @ 4:03 pm

  8. [...] Posts Teaching with Informational Text: Historic Newspapers from the Library of Congress Core Knowledge: A Lifeboat in the Sea of Information Inching Toward Equity: What Should Schools Do to Increase Social Mobility? Ask Not What Our Schools [...]

    Pingback by Teaching with Informational Text: Historic Newspapers from the Library of Congress « The Core Knowledge Blog — August 1, 2013 @ 2:41 pm

  9. [...] don’t need to learn things because they can “always” look them up. Not only is this false—one must have a store of working knowledge in order to make sense of texts, etc.—but it robs us of a sense of treasure. When I memorize a [...]

    Pingback by The “Old Verities” and the Lamentation Sprawl | Diana Senechal — August 4, 2013 @ 11:35 am

  10. Decades before the internet and the smartphone our “educationists” decided that learning the process was enough, because once that learned, it would be possible to look up anything at all! And this meant in paper books. There is truly not much general knowledge about the past century of theory concerning the education of children.

    Thanks to Jim who speaks of how bad Postmodernism is for education, and Rousseau also! Rousseau, of course, hated teaching when he tried it, and there is reason to say that he wrote about education only as a means of improving society. Furthermore, the French education system has been changed and tends more toward constructivism than Instruction–that is to say, direct teaching of information in school.

    Jim, have you published anything about Postmodernism and educational policies? It would be very useful!

    Comment by Susan Toth — August 9, 2013 @ 5:08 pm

  11. Wow, interesting Susan that the French seemingly moved more toward the American and British educational systems. I am pretty new to studying education philosophy/pedagogy, and I was roughly quoting from E.D Hirsch’s The Schools We Need… when I referenced Postmodernism. I haven’t published anything (only having a MAT degree), but I would like to see Postmodernism’s basic assertions challenged (and brought to light) more often in print.

    Here is our local International School’s mission statement:

    “As global citizens at Eugene International High School, we aspire to value diversity, AMBIGUITY, and discovery and to act with responsibility, integrity, and compassion.”

    Once postmodernism established ambiguity as a defining quality of modern society, its proponents were emboldened to question everything and discredit even the most well-established hierarchies. There became, in effect, no clear way forward.

    The poet Yvor Winters made a persuasive argument against ambiguity, or more precisely relativism, with regard to literature.

    “The professor of English Literature who believes that taste is relative yet who endeavors to convince his students that Hamlet is more worthy of their attention than some currently popular novel, is in a serious predicament.”

    The end result, according to William Logan, is that the professor has stopped trying. This is exactly what the end result of Postmodernism (and the relativism it legitimizes) has been as I have seen it in the teaching profession. It creates teachers who stop trying.

    They don’t teach much of anything because there are no real RIGHT answers to many important questions. Everything is a matter of perspective. Remember, Tolstoy hated Shakespeare. If Shakespeare was nothing more than a mouthpiece for aristocratic values then the whole cannon could be, and was, challenged (of course, Tolstoy and others were/are totally wrong).

    This level of discussion would unfortunately be lost on most high school teachers. I wonder how many of them even know what Postmodernism is. (they too have been denied facts, what irony!). My exposure to Postmodernism was in a college class I took a few years back in preparation for graduate school. Then I started running across it in books and essays by the likes of Jacques Barzun and other out-of-favor scholars. Seeing E.D Hirsch tie it all together in his book was quite a revelation.

    The new ebook 7 Myth’s About Education (free to borrow for Amazon Prime customers) also highlights the destructive influence of Postmodernism on education. Thanks Lisa Hansel for highlighting that great book on this great blog.

    Comment by Jim — August 10, 2013 @ 2:10 am

  12. Thanks, Jim, for your comments. I’ve been reading about postmodernism and find it difficult in depth, but could see effects in the schools. I even bought the Seven Myths and need to read it again; will do so looking for signs.

    I was in France in the 60s and the school “reform” began then. Hirsch had seen the best of traditional schooling. I had a number of friends who were teachers trained under the traditional system and they suffered in their work during the transition. The traditional was very good but of course had faults; for example, teachers could be cruel, very cruel, to students. That might be one thing that created disciples of constructivism. One of my friends did go that way.

    One point lost that I believe to be nevertheless true: traditionally “éducation” was something that happened in the home, and “instruction” in the schools. Until 1968 it was called “Instruction Publique,” then it became “Education nationale.”

    Teachers don’t have the background to understand ideas such as postmodernism. Those of us brought up in progressivist schools, and I am one, did not get the kind of information needed! That is one reason I am angry about the refusal in our national conversation to explore these ideas. I find this refusal undemocratic. Which of course is pertinent in view of progressivist claims to teach how to live in a democracy.

    Have you also been reading Mortimer Adler?

    Comment by Susan Toth — August 10, 2013 @ 11:13 am

  13. One point lost that I believe to be nevertheless true: traditionally “éducation” was something that happened in the home, and “instruction” in the schools. Until 1968 it was called “Instruction Publique,” then it became “Education nationale.”

    This is an interesting quote, and I have recently discovered Riesman’s book The Lonely Crowd (which I haven’t read yet). It makes a distinction between inner and outer directed cultural types where the major influence in a pupil’s life shifted from family authority to public, mass-media. Is this similar to what you are referring to in the above quotation?

    And you make a good point Susan about what drove many away from traditional schooling. When teachers had all of the power there was a temptation by some to abuse that power. It probably only took a few instances of abuse to cause quite the sea change that has occurred. I am 46 and I was subjected to capital punishment in junior high. When I told this to my much younger peers in my graduate education program, they thought I was some kind of pitiful dinosaur.

    Conversely, I have been astonished by the lack of teacher authority in the schools now. I have spent a lot of time in a variety of different classrooms (“high performing” public) in the last few years, and the students in my neck of the woods have total control. I think it is one unacknowledged factor in the switch to a project-based curriculum. Teachers in today’s classrooms often can not even achieve basic order in the classroom; better to just put them in groups and let them “teach” one another.

    With the student-directed classrooms of today the teacher, by definition, is marginalized. He or she has no authority or even knowledge to impart. The students are supposed to discover it for themselves.

    Yes, I have read Adler. I read the Paideia Proposal early in my graduate program and liked it. I was a little bored with How to Read A Book to be honest.

    Comment by Jim — August 10, 2013 @ 11:43 am

  14. I think it is both stimulating and discouraging to note that talking about education can easily jump from one idea to another and all of them contribute but none are satisfactorily treated. Traditionally in France éducation referred to learning about morals, how to get along in social situations and so on, personal flourishing, the things parents need to pass on to their children (for example, telling a 4-year-old how to answer an adult who speaks to the child). Does that correspond to the message of The Lonely Crowd?

    Daisy Christodoulou brings out a wealth of points about “independent learning” that either parallel or reinforce what we learn from Hirsch. They need to be repeated. She wrote in her introduction: “I see people of my parents’ age in the news all the time who are no more innately intelligent than them, but who, thanks to different circumstances of birth and education, have had many more opportunities in life.” This is perhaps the key sin of the theories offered by Rousseau, Dewey, Freire and company. Independent “learning” does not make up for lack of opportunities. But “instruction,” teaching what the world is (as Hannah Arendt wrote) goes in the right direction! (With reference to reading “out-of-favor scholars!”)

    I’ve read a series of short essays of Mortimer Adler; one comment has stuck with me, and I have thought about it quite a bit. He said that liberal education should be the program of elementary school. That should inspire a book.

    Comment by Susan Toth — August 11, 2013 @ 4:12 pm

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