Friday, May 13, 2011

Difference between rote knowledge and inflexible knowledge

Much of what is commonly taken to be rote knowledge is in fact not rote knowledge. Rather, what we often think of as rote is, instead, inflexible knowledge, which is a normal product of learning and a common part of the journey toward expertise.
  • Rote knowledge is memorizing without meaning.
  • Inflexible knowledge is memorizing with meaning. It can be described as concrete and superficial.
  • Knowledge is flexible when it can be accessed out of the context in which it was learned and applied in new contexts.  It can be described as deeper and abstract.
  • Inflexible knowledge is the unavoidable foundation for expertise.
When encountering new material, the human mind appears to be biased towards learning the surface features of problems, not toward grasping the deep structure that is necessary to achieve flexible knowledge.
An important goal of education is expertise, which can be defined as "understanding the deep structure of a large domain".  However, before expertise is achieved, there is a large middle ground where students must acquire inflexible knowledge.  Acquiring and working (including practice) with inflexible knowledge are vital steps in the educational process.

To many of us it appears that the educational establishment has a bias against inflexible knowledge, leading schools to skip over a vital step in the learning process.   They often push to teach critical thinking skills before students have sufficient knowledge of the topics about which they are supposed to be thinking critically.  My own enduring example of this is the assignment of a research project on global warming or overpopulation in the fifth grade.  It can be a fun, engaging assignment, but the results I've seen make me question its educational value.  Among other things, it usually consumes huge amounts of precious time, requires excessive parent involvement, treats topics in a superficial manner because some critical science fundamentals (inflexible knowledge) have not been taught beforehand and leaves the student with a better understanding about creating dioramas than about the underlying concept.  Rote learning, anyone?

Daniel Willingham's advice to educators:
Appreciate the importance of students' growing knowledge, even if it's inflexible: Don't be reluctant to build students' factual knowledge base. Some facts end up in memory without any meaning, and other facts have meanings that are quite inflexible, but that doesn't mean that teachers should minimize the teaching of facts in the curriculum. "Fact" is not synonymous with rote knowledge or with inflexible knowledge. Knowing more facts makes many cognitive functions (e.g., comprehension, problem solving) operate more efficiently. If we minimize the learning of facts out of fear that they will be absorbed as rote knowledge, we are truly throwing the baby out with the bath water.
Remember that inflexible knowledge is a natural step on the way to the deeper knowledge that we want our students to have: Frustration that students' knowledge is inflexible is a bit like frustration that a child can add but can't do long division. It's not that this child knows nothing; rather, he doesn't know everything we want him to know yet. But the knowledge he does have is the natural step on the road to deeper knowledge. What turns the inflexible knowledge of a beginning student into the flexible knowledge of an expert seems to be a lot more knowledge, more examples, and more practice.


  1. I have been carrying around a Daniel Willingham stack of material to read for 2 weeks. You have inspired me to go do it now!

  2. Good! I'm sure there's a lot of wisdom in that stack.

  3. I am struggling with this quite a bit with one of the courses I am teaching. The course is on "Health Information" and its content is mandated by accreditation (thank you AHIMA, not).It is an entire semester of factoids without structure. Because there is no intellectual underpinning, it can only be taught in rote fashion. It is so boring that even I am bored, so I tried spicing it up with discussions and projects - but then we run into the brick wall of student ignorance about even commonsense things I think this kind of course should be relegated to employer training programs. It has no place in a university. Sigh.

  4. It has no place in a university.

    It sounds miserable, but I can see the pressure to provide these students with as much credentialing as possible to help them land jobs after graduation.

    I continue to be amazed at your students' lack of background knowledge, yet I hear about this problem all the time in the context of poor reading comprehension.