I'm nearing the end of my read of James Lang's terrific book Small Teaching, and I've wanted for the last 100 pages or so to recommend it highly here.
While I do that, however, I'd also like to mention a confusion that piqued my interest near the middle of the book—a very common false distinction, I think, between 'making connections' and knowing things. Lang sets it up this way:
When we are tackling a new author in my British literature survey course, I might begin class by pointing out some salient feature of the author's life or work and asking students to tell me the name of a previous author (whose work we have read) who shares that same feature. "This is a Scottish author," I will say. "And who was the last Scottish author we read?" Blank stares. Perhaps just a bit of gaping bewilderment. Instead of seeing the broad sweep of British literary history, with its many plots, subplots, and characters, my students see Author A and then Author B and then Author C and so on. They can analyze and remember the main works and features of each author, but they run into trouble when asked to forge connections among writers.
What immediately follows this paragraph is what one would expect from a writer who has done his homework on the research: Lang reminds himself that his students are novices and he an expert; his students' knowledge of British literature and history is "sparse and superficial."
But then, suddenly, the false distinction, where 'knowledge' takes on a different meaning, becoming synonymous with "sparse and superficial," and his students have it again:
In short, they have knowledge, in the sense that they can produce individual pieces of information in specific contexts; what they lack is understanding or comprehension.
And they lack comprehension, even more shortly, because they lack connections.
Nope, Still Knowledge
As we saw here, with the Wason Selection Task, reasoning ability itself is dependent on knowledge. Participants who were given abstract rules had tremendous difficulties with modus tollens reasoning in particular, yet when these rules were set in concrete contexts, the difficulties all but vanished.
One might say, indeed, that in concrete contexts, the connections are known, not inferred. Thus, if you want students to make connections among various authors, it might help to tell them that they are connected, and how.