When is “Surface-Level” Knowledge Good Enough?

Frequently we hear about the importance of having a “deeper” understanding of ideas and concepts. By this, people usually mean an understanding that goes beyond simple memorization of facts, including the ability to apply their understanding to (appropriate) new contexts. Usually this goal of deeper understanding is presented as an unquestionably good thing, and one a sense it is- more depth of understanding in and of itself is obviously positive. However, when it comes down to choosing what should be taught, we have only a finite amount of time. The trade-off with greater depth of understanding is the greater amount of time required to achieve that level of understanding.

So I was interested to read Robert Marzano’s conclusion in Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement that even surface level background knowledge can be very useful. He uses the example of the word “correlation,” which many adults are familiar with in a general sense as meaning that when one thing increases, the other increases. Few people actually understand even relatively basic technical details of a statistical correlation, or could apply the concept in a statistical analysis, but their knowledge is nonetheless extremely useful because the concept of a correlation appears relatively frequently in many settings.

This implies that it’s worth thinking seriously about the depth of knowledge that we think is necessary for concepts and ideas, and to make sure that we choose to dive deeply only into the concepts that are most essential.

At the same time, there are probably a good number of things that it’s OK to be familiar with only at the level of a general understanding. Moreover, this kind of basic background knowledge can be one of the main challenges for disadvantaged students, who often don’t get the same exposure to a broad range of experiences as students from a more privileged background. Lacking basic background knowledge can be a major barrier to initial understanding of new concepts, or for general reading comprehension. According to Marzano, even activities such as watching educational television can be a big help in this area, but sustained silent reading programs or other methods of building background knowledge can be effective as well.

Regardless of the method, it seems that a key component of improved reading comprehension and general academic success is developing a sufficiently large pool of background information. As a consequence, educational programs should balance both depth of understanding of key areas and general breadth of background knowledge.

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