Knowledge Builds on Knowledge

To test the influence of expertise on perception and working memory, William Chase and Herbert Simon conducted a famous experiment in the 1970s. They had beginning and expert chess players attempt to recreate the arrangement of pieces they observed on a chessboard. When the pieces were randomly placed on the board, both groups remembered about the same number of locations for the pieces. But when they attempted to remember an actual game, the people familiar with chess remembered the location of four times as many pieces as the beginners.

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The reason for this may seem obvious: if one can recognize a strategy that leads to certain pieces' positions, one is more likely to recall where the pieces were located. So instead of having to recall each piece individually, one can remember patterns for how certain pieces are positioned on the particular squares.

The same is true for reading comprehension. For example, if one is reading a book about basketball, it's helpful to have watched a few games and know how it's played. Having done so will likely improve reading comprehension of that book. And if you were to apply this principle to a broader spectrum of subjects, one can understand the importance of what E.D. Hirsch calls "cultural literacy." There's a discrete set of knowledge that not only helps us navigate the world but also serves as an essential foundation for future learning.  

For this reason, the choices that teachers make for the content of their lessons is doubly important both for immediate comprehension and also for building future knowledge. And when done well, as in E. D. Hirsch's Core Knowledge curriculum, this foundational knowledge helps open the door to a future of possibilities.  


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