Rutgers Writing Program

In the third of the Tips for Teachers series of Spring 2010, we read and discussed "How Knowledge Helps", by Daniel T. Willingham. It is published in American Educator, Spring 2006, and is also online at We started our discussion with one member stating that he heard from many high school teachers that a number of their students lack simple basic knowledge, such as being unable to complete the rhyme, "Mary had a little _" Whether this lack of knowledge is because of not having been born in an English speaking country, or because of not being exposed to literacy, or because both parents work and spend less time raising their children, or the children spend all the time playing video games, the essential point is that students are unable to make some references to basic knowledge, which are part of the building blocks of knowledge acquisition. 

We spoke about how, as mentioned in the article, having knowledge means that gaining new knowledge becomes easier, so that the "rich get richer". What this means is that there is a widening gap between those with and those without knowledge. We thought that what might be an incentive to learning might be a discovery of a particular fascination, and then wanting to find out more about it. Chess might be one such example. Then as knowledge grows, and new abilities manifest themselves, then there is more success in playing the game, which in itself is an incentive to gain even more knowledge. 



One member present raised an interesting point about teaching Expository Writing. She said that since it is so inter-disciplinary, she has chosen readings - Stout, for example - even though she had no prior knowledge of psychology. She chose Stout as it is so well written and because it connected well with another piece she was using, but now she worries that perhaps she is not teaching it well since she has not learned psychology. But another teacher countered her fears by saying that perhaps she could teach this even more effectively, since by having no former knowledge, she was stepping into the students' shoes and knowing how they might feel. And yet another teacher present said that she keeps away from pieces for which she has no prior knowledge, so that her fear of the subject of economics has kept her away from using Chua. 

One teacher mentioned that what she found disturbing was that her students often lack knowledge of vocabulary. She said how some of her students thought that 'musing' meant the same as being amused, and another teacher said how one of his students was reading a piece entitled "Reframing the Debate on Drinking", and wrote "Why can't students reframe from drinking?" Others have seen students muddle 'feminine' with 'feminism', and 'economic' with 'economical'. 

We wondered whether it would help current students if texts are online, and that key words or crucial concepts have hyperlinks to some information or explanation. But some of us worried that a piece might have an excessive number of links, and that students might at best get overwhelmed and at worst completely lost. We also discussed the worth of Wikipedia, and agreed that it is a good starting place and stepping stone for students to gain ideas and learn some data and information. Also one member present mentioned how online encyclopedias, such as Gail and Sage, are useful sources, and are gradually replacing hard bound reference collections in the university library. 

‘Satisficing’ was a concept that one teacher raised; in other words, that some students might be content to skim articles and do the minimum, and might not be motivated to look up information or vocabulary that they don't know. Another teacher present said how it is possible to survive in any language with 500 words, and that by the time students have graduated from college, they might know 1200 words. We suggested that the work we now ask students to do in Expository Writing, in terms of starting out with a Close Reading Assignment, might go some way to helping students to put in more effort than just skimming and whizzing through pieces they read. 

We also spoke about how there are different, and hopefully effective ways, of getting through to students and helping to engage them. One teacher spoke about a wonderful activity that she did when reading Stout. She was discussing with her students Stout's use of the term 'fugue', and so what she did to illustrate this was to play them a YouTube video of a Bach fugue. In listening to this music, she illustrated how there were four lines of melody which were playing simultaneously, and yet they were parallel to each other and never met. She likened this to the psychological state of fugue that Stout depicts, in which in one person prone to dissociation there are different and parallel states of being. From this lovely example, many of us discussed other ways in which we try to engage students, using art or music, as in when one student bought in his sitar, and played some music of his own composition, which nicely reflected the text being read. But one worry that some teachers had was that even though it is nice to have side activities, they might ultimately distract from the text itself if not prudently used.

We also spoke about how the emphasis on multiple choice tests does not stress writing or vocabulary, and one member mentioned the Civil War series on TV, and how the letters that the soldiers sent often contained incredible language. We spoke about how, in those days, story telling, poetry and memorisation were emphasised, and there were no distractions from electronic media. Today, we said, it is possible that students know more laterally, because of the Internet, but know far less in depth than in previous generations. As one teacher said, now many students rely on technology to be their brain. And this is a concern, since brain cells which are not used, might diminish.

We then went on to say how one thing that the article did not mention was the need to challenge a priori knowledge at times, and decrease the risk of students being lazy thinkers. One teacher spoke of how one of her students had an immediate agenda to oppose Obama, so that when she asked them to closely listen to his State of the Union speech, (as an exercise to parallel the close reading assignment) this student automatically criticized the president on all he said, as his expectations about his views had ossified. Another teacher talked about how, in the 201 research writing courses, we deliberately ask students to consider opposing views, and to open their minds to different viewpoints and challenge their previously held assumptions. A teacher referred to Nick Carr’s book, The Big Switch, in which he said it is so easy for us only to relate to those with whom we agree. He also referred to Batista Schlesinger’s book, The Death of Why, which considers that the fact that people generally do not engage with others who take opposing viewpoints is a real challenge to the continuation of democracy.

Some of us asked if we are getting dumber. This is a question dealt with in Alan Bloom’s book, The Closing of the American Mind. But does every generation have this conversation? Now we blame the Internet and electronic media; before we blamed TV. Yes, the rich get richer, but does the disparity between the rich and the impoverished stretch even wider? Since it was thought that the general population does not read, and the news they watch on TV is diluted and sensationalized, what do most of us know? Should university be a job factory, only training people in specific skills, or should there be learning for its own sake?

We spoke of how so many young people are addicted to video games, and how a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that many children eight to eighteen years of age spend about 8 hours a day playing these games. But are all video games harmful? One teacher mentioned Steven Johnson’s views, as expressed in Everything Bad is Good for You, that some games are in fact beneficial as they are complex, and involve strategy, decision-making, and some knowledge of history. Therefore they are active and not passive pursuits. The same is true, Johnson argues, of TV sitcoms, which moved, over a time span of some forty years, from simple story lines, as inDallas, to plots of elaborate complexity and many characters, as in The Sopranos.

So what is our role as teachers? One member present said our challenge is to engage students, but do we have to dumb down the course to make them happy? It was suggested by others that we should present a hook, something that they care about or are fascinated in, and once we have their attention this way, we can move to other things. What we need to do is challenge our students, and possibly teach them things that their parents don’t know. One teacher suggested that it is valuable to tell students that an education is so important, because then that is something that this student always possesses. Other things can be taken away, but an education remains.

We concluded that many of our students are ‘lateral thinkers’, borrowing the term from Edward de Bono, in his book Lateral Thinking: Creativity Step by Step. Instead of digging deeper and deeper in an existing hole of knowledge they might leap out and start to dig a new hole somewhere else. This might come about as our students often have different skills than the skills we possess, as they are exposed to things we were not exposed to. Also their texting and AIM chatting and playing of video games has taught them to multi-task in ways different from those we perhaps are more used to.

And since students might know different things from the things we know, this article, we thought, might be a bit concerning as it assumes there is a basic knowledge we all should have. But who is to say, we asked, which knowledge is important? And essentially we teachers learn a lot from our students. It’s what keeps teaching interesting and fascinating, and prevents us from teaching a canned course. Many of concluded that we felt optimistic about the future; although there are some students who are not so tremendous, there are certainly some who are astoundingly good.



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201: Research in the Disciplines


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