top of page

An inquirED Blog

A Brain-Based User’s Guide for Educators

The Power of High-Quality Instructional Materials

Can understanding the brain revolutionize how we help students build knowledge? How can schools and districts optimize their practices for better learning outcomes? We were joined by renowned cognitive psychologist and author Daniel T. Willingham to explore how integrating cognitive psychology principles with educational practices can transform the way knowledge is built in our classrooms and schools.

NOTE: There is no recording for this webinar.


Key Takeaways

  • Importance of Knowledge in Critical Thinking: Knowledge plays a significant role in the development of critical thinking skills. You can’t separate these skills from content knowledge.

  • Background Knowledge and Reading Comprehension: The comprehension of reading material heavily relies on background knowledge. It provides context and aids in understanding.

  • Ineffectiveness of Teaching Skills Alone: Teaching skills in isolation don’t effectively improve critical thinking. Instead, there should be an understanding of deep structure and practice involved.

  • General Knowledge as a Predictor of Academic Success: General knowledge strongly predicts later reading and math scores, making it a crucial aspect of early education.

Knowledge and Skills Are Intertwined

During the webinar, Professor Willingham shared his insights on the intersection of knowledge and skills, shedding light on the often misunderstood nature of critical thinking. He suggests, “We point to abilities like analysis and communication and creativity. And these are considered as sort of floating free of content knowledge.” However, this common belief that knowledge and skills are separate entities, each operating in its own silo, oversimplifies the complex workings of the human brain. As Willingham asserts, “critical thinking is more typically intertwined with knowledge. This is the way our brain is set up to think critically.”

The importance of acknowledging the interconnectedness of knowledge and skills is particularly apparent in education. Willingham explains, “Strategies for teaching critical thinking skills are rooted in beliefs about the nature of critical thinking.” If educators maintain the idea that “the particular content used to teach skills doesn’t matter much because content is always available,” they may overlook the crucial role of knowledge in bridging the gap between socioeconomically advantaged and disadvantaged students. Our brains do not operate within rigid boundaries; rather, they function as an interconnected web where knowledge and skills deeply intertwine. Therefore, it is essential to recognize and leverage this relationship in pedagogical practices.

Teaching Content Is Teaching Reading

Daniel Willingham’s work highlights the crucial role of background knowledge in reading comprehension, and the detrimental effects of separating knowledge and skills when teaching literacy. “The separation of knowledge and skills in literacy instruction,” Willingham states, “hinders students’ ability to effectively comprehend and analyze texts.” He argues that a holistic approach to teaching literacy, which integrates knowledge and skills, is paramount for effective comprehension and analysis of texts.

Willingham further emphasizes the potential benefits of integrating knowledge and skills within a knowledge-rich curriculum. He says, “We now have very good data showing that when you’ve got a knowledge-rich curriculum where kids are from an early age learning lots of social studies as well as science and other subjects, reading comprehension is much stronger.” This approach not only fosters better reading comprehension but also prepares students for more advanced learning later in their academic careers. It seems, then, that integrating content knowledge and skill development from an early age appears to be key in cultivating strong reading comprehension and overall academic success.

Equity and Knowledge Building

Students deserve equal access to information and learning opportunities, regardless of an individual’s background or circumstances. It is a critical element in promoting democracy and enabling individuals to fully participate in society. But it requires more than just providing access to information. According to Willingham, “knowledge does much more than just help students hone their thinking skills: It actually makes learning easier.” The structure and depth of an individual’s existing knowledge base significantly influence their ability to understand and assimilate new information.

The cumulative and exponential nature of knowledge building means that its effects increase over time, “knowledge is not only cumulative,” Willingham states, “but it grows exponentially. Those with a rich base of factual knowledge find it easier to learn more — the rich get richer.” This suggests that the disparities in knowledge acquisition are not merely due to access but also to differences in existing knowledge structures. Factual knowledge enhances cognitive processes like problem-solving and reasoning, and prior knowledge allows for faster recognition of familiar patterns and solutions. Therefore, knowledge equity must also involve efforts to ensure that all individuals have a solid foundation of factual knowledge upon which they can build. This entails addressing systemic issues in education that may hinder the development of this foundational knowledge, such as socio-economic disparities and biases in curriculum design. As Willingham notes, “All students will learn more if they have greater background knowledge.”

Willingham’s work emphasizes that gaining knowledge is closely linked to developing skills. His research supports the need for a curriculum rich in knowledge to improve reading comprehension, critical thinking, and equal opportunities for all learners. Moving forward in education, it’s important to integrate knowledge and skills to help every student establish a strong foundation for lifelong learning.


  • Evaluation of Core Knowledge Charter Schools: This study delves into the long-term impacts of attending Core Knowledge Charter schools, institutions emphasizing the expansion of students’ general knowledge to enhance reading comprehension and overall academic achievement. The research employs an experimental design to address kindergarten lottery biases, revealing a statistically significant effect on student performance

  • Knowledge Matters Rubrics: Designed by literacy experts for evaluating K-8 ELA curriculum, the Knowledge Matters Review Tool is a resource to determine if an ELA curriculum is truly “content-rich” and aligned to research on reading comprehension.

About inquirED

inquirED was founded by teachers with the mission of bringing inquiry-based social studies to every classroom. Inquiry Journeys, inquirED’s elementary social studies curriculum, is used in schools and districts across the country to help students develop deep social studies content knowledge and build the inquiry skills that are essential for a thriving democracy.


Subscribe to receive email updates from inquirED


bottom of page