The Retention Toolkit #3: Hooks- Content- vs. Skill-Centered Approaches

klsgfx-Swiss-Army-Knife-2The Retention Toolkit is a series of posts describing research based tools which help improve long-term knowledge retention.

The mantra, “Teach children how to think, not what to think.” has become an almost unanimous refrain in education.  On some level, it makes sense: We want children who grow into critically thinking adults, creative thinkers and problem solvers, not simply organic hard drives. But the statement itself is a trap. The idea that one can know how but not what, or what but not how, is fallacious- a false dichotomy. Research indicates in fact that one cannot know how without a whole lot of what already in place. In Daniel Willingham’s excellent book, Why Don’t Students Like School, he devotes a full chapter to this topic, which I will draw from throughout this post.

“Cognitive processes, such as analyzing, synthesizing, and critiquing cannot operate alone. They need background knowledge to make them work.” (1)

A solid knowledge base (content) is the foundation on which upper level skills are built. What we often times think of as strategic or critical thinking is memory at work. Our brains are designed to synthesize and make connections- but they need the raw material in the form of broad knowledge to do it.

Often times we approach schooling as a spectrum between content and skill development. Children do need skills- most importantly reading- but the explicit teaching of upper level skills (analysis, synthesis, critique) at the expense of content teaching is ineffective. (1)

In the tradition of Classical education, young students devote years to simply acquiring the “grammar” of their subjects: a broad knowledge base spanning history, science, and language, and are thus prepared for more advanced critical thinking as they move through the classical curriculum.

One model of this education progression is Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Blooms Taxonomy
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Bloom’s taxonomy describes a hierarchy of skills that are built upon a firm knowledge base. In my next post, I will talk more about using Bloom’s Taxonomy in the homeschool. For this post, it is important just to understand the hierarchical nature of skill development, especially in light of Willingham’s research-backed statement,

“Critical thinking is not a set of procedures that can be practiced and perfected while divorced from background knowledge.” (1)


As we can see, a broad base of content knowledge is critically important to higher level cognitive skills. The question then is: How do we give our students this knowledge, and how can we help them retain it?

The answer is refreshingly simple. We provide content knowledge through a content rich home environment, and they retain it by being exposed to more and more content!

“Remembering things is all about cues to memory. We dredge up memories when we think of things that are related to what we are trying to remember.” (1)

This is your brain.

What Willingham calls cues are what many educators call “hooks.” Once a piece of data is learned, it provides a hook for all sorts of other pieces of information to grab hold of, thus making them (and the original hook) easier to remember.

“This final effect of background knowledge- that having factual knowledge in long-term memory makes it easier to acquire still more factual knowledge is worth contemplating for a moment. It means that the amount of information you retain depends on what you already have.” (1)

Because gaining content knowledge has a snowball effect, the more you have, the more you get, and the earlier you start, the faster it accumulates.

What Content should I teach?

This has become a very politically charged question. Once again, Willingham sums up the situation nicely.

“For reading, students must know whatever information writers assume they know and hence leave out. The necessary knowledge will vary depending on what students read, but most observers would agree that a reasonable minimum target would be to read a daily newspaper and to read books written for the intelligent layman on serious topics such as science and politics. Using this criterion, we may still be distressed that much of what writers assume their readers know seems to be touchstone of the culture of dead white males.

“From the cognitive scientist’s point of view, the only choice in that case is to try to persuade writers and editors […] to assume different knowledge on the part of their readers. […] Unless and until that happens, I advocate teaching that material to our students. The simple fact is that without that knowledge, they cannot read the breadth of material that their more knowledgeable schoolmates can, nor with the depth of comprehension.” (1)

I will write more on this topic in an upcoming post on the knowledge deficit.

Application in the Homeschool

For all students, but particularly for elementary-aged students, prioritize the creation of mental hooks to hang content knowledge on. Willingham has the following suggestions:

“If you want to be exposed to new vocabulary and new ideas, the places to go are books, magazines, and newspapers. Television, video games, and the sorts of internet content that students lean toward (for example social networking sites, musical sites, and the like) are for the most part unhelpful. Researchers have painstakingly analyzed the contents of the many ways that students can spend their leisure time. Books, newspapers, and magazines are singularly helpful in introducing new ideas and new vocabulary for students”

Additionally, remember Charlotte Mason’s adage,

charlotte masonBuilding a family culture of lifelong learning by modeling good habits yourself will go far towards creating a rich content environment. Watching documentaries together as a family, collecting issues of National Geographic and other content-rich magazines, and above all, reading books both aloud to children and individually, provides an atmosphere of a living education.

Mental hooks do not need to be categorized as only “facts.” In a later post, I will discuss the importance of visual, experiential, and emotional hooks to learning and retention.

So where do skills fit in?

When creating a curriculum plan for a child, ask yourself: What skills are necessary in order to further that child’s acquisition of a broad knowledge base? These skills include: reading, math (including statistics for upper grade levels), and writing fundamentals (grammar, spelling, structure).  Students will naturally progress to higher level thinking along Bloom’s taxonomy.  My next post will help you judge that progression and give it a nudge if necessary to shore up weaker upper-level skill areas.

In the Homeschool in the Cave, time is limited. When you must choose between two activities, choose to read aloud to your children.

“Books expose children to more facts and to broader vocabulary than virtually any other activity and persuasive data indicate that people that read for pleasure enjoy cognitive benefits throughout their lives.” (1)


If this topic interests you, I highly recommend Willingham’s book for in-depth explanations of cognitive science research into learning.

(1) Willingham, Daniel. Why Don’t Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom.

3 thoughts on “The Retention Toolkit #3: Hooks- Content- vs. Skill-Centered Approaches”

  1. I’ll have to chew on this own. My immediate thought is confusion, since I observe my children doing all of those stages many times every day.

    Plus, I agree with C.S. Lewis the daily newspaper reading is not so helpful, since a few weeks, months or years later most of the information will be found false, so the time is better spent on higher-quality material. People will tell us if something really important has happened in the world . . .

    So, I look forward to your next post, and I will cogitate on this!

    1. Regarding Bloom’s taxonomy, you are absolutely right that we don’t *need* to pass through each stage methodically or even in order, our passage through them can be both a slow glacial movement over years, as well as a spike in a very short period of time (minutes, hours). More on that to come!
      As for newspapers, I think what Willingham is saying is that the capacity to read a daily paper and layman’s nonfiction should be used as a benchmark for cultural literacy and reading fluency, not necessarily that either one is worth reading. Personally, the only time in my life that I felt truly informed of world events was when I was living in France and read The Economist from cover to cover every single week for six months, because it was the only thing I had access to in English! So I won’t argue with Lewis on that one. But the *ability* to read a paper shows that a person has a solid amount of background information to extract meaning from the text (as opposed to understanding each word but not the whole)

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