Einstein Would Have Been a Crappy Teacher

For all of his wisdom and worldly contributions, Albert would've stumbled as an educator.

(read Walter Isaacson's account of his life: it is truly eye opening)

How do I know? He doesn't understand a fundamental aspect of acquiring knowledge: that facts must precede conceptual constructs and the synthesis of new information. (Origin of this idea is Make It Stick)

Evidence for this bold claim comes from this often praised quote:

"creativity is more important than knowledge" says Einstein.

That might be true for some endeavors, but teachers should be careful and avoid this advice.

For someone who devoted his life to making connections and advancing theoretical physics through the accumulation of knowledge, this quote is confusing.

An ambiguous discussion referring to the context of this quote is unnecessary, of course we love Albert, we are simply using this idea as a springboard into something much larger.

Factual knowledge is the seed of creativity.  Without knowing things, you can not use creativity to weave them together to create new ideas.

Without facts, there is no synthesis.

This article highlights the benefits of factual information on reading comprehension and memory.

Reading comprehension and memory (learning) are major cogs in the education machine.

Knowing facts helps grease the cogs so the machine lunges forward efficiently.

Why knowing facts is important to reading comprehension

Writers can't and definitely do not dictate every event and occurrence in a scene.  For an example we'll use this amazing piece from Anton Chekhov's The Princess:

"The doctor paused and clenched his teeth, making an intense effort to think of something more to say, very unpleasant and vindictive. He thought of something, and his cold, frowning face suddenly brightened."
Chekov assumes that the reader has basic knowledge pertaining to the characters actions and therefore does not need to explain it step by step.  For example "the doctor paused and clenched his teeth...", Chekhov assumes that the reader knows that the act of clenching teeth draws strain on the face and it is a sign of discomfort and stress.  Describing clenching teeth would be laborious, tedious, and would take away from the rhythm and flow of the piece.

Prior factual knowledge allows readers to fill in the narrative gaps while working through a text.  In this case, the prior knowledge concerns the act of clenching teeth.

Prior knowledge allows the reader to actively engage in the text by making and testing predictions.

Prior factual knowledge is thought to be a determining factor in the overall comprehension of a text and the acquisition of new material from the text.

"when you have background knowledge your mind connects the material you're reading with what you already know about the topic, even if you're not aware that it's happening."

Perhaps this is why socioeconomic differences lead to gaps in compression between the "haves" and "have-nots"?  Privilege allows for the more background knowledge and therefore better text comprehension.

Why knowing facts is important to Memory

Prior knowledge acts as an anchor for new incoming stimuli.  As an analogy, think of Velcro, with out the hooks in Velcro, separate objects to not fix together.  Prior knowledge is the velcro in the mind, it grabs onto and adheres to new substances in the brain.

In cognitive science talk, the process of strengthening and organizing a memory trace (temporary representation in working memory) is called consolidation. To do this, the brain must tie it ideas found in long term memory    Consolidation is made possible because factual knowledge resides in long term memory.  Without facts, there is no consolidation, without consolidation, a memory trace forever stays in working memory and is eventually lost.

In summary, it is ok to teach facts.  But don't abuse the goal of this article and only teach facts.  Understand that facts are the preceding ingredient to the much larger cognitive abilities of synthesis and creativity.

"the amount of information retained depends on what you already have."

That's an awesome concept.  The more you know, the more you'll be able to know.  You must start somewhere.

Where is the best place to start?

A book.  Read and insist that your students do the same.

Thanks for reading and read Make It Stick.


  1. On the other hand, Einstein's experience of learning can tell us much about what counts in learning. I recently gave a paper pointing to that experience as key to our understanding later difficulties students of science have in the integration of the sciences and ethics (link below). Einstein relates to an audience of theorists and scientists: ‘Don’t pay any attention to what the scientists say to you, watch what they do’” (Einstein 1934/12). The quote implies that there is something going on in the scientist's relationship to reality that they are at least unaware of and at worst completely wrong about. Below is a further narrative that I used in a note in my paper about Einstein. But first, I enjoyed thoroughly reading some of your blog and intuitively have migrated to the same sources, e.g., Kurt V. Thanks, Catherine Blanche King

    QUOTE from NOTE: In a paper given at the same conference as our own, William Matthews refers to and quotes Albert Einstein: “The first arousal of Einstein’s curiosity did not come from a book but from a compass when he was 4 or 5. It awakened in him a wonder about nature: ‘Something deeply hidden had to be behind things.’” Here is an example of an early comprehensive insight that pointed Einstein towards the “hidden,” might I say the intelligible, rather than to the merely sensible. Then in his note, Matthews states: “The quotes are from his Autobiographical Notes, page 9. On page 15 he remarks that between the ages of 11-16 he had the good fortune of discovering the right books and subsequently teachers to advance his curiosity” In that same paper, Matthews writes: “In their afterword to the 2015 The Future of the Brain: Essays by the World’s Leading Neuroscientists, Christof Koch and Gary Marcus wrote: ‘The final challenge, indubitably, will be how subjective feelings, how consciousness itself, emerges from the physical brain. Even today, there remains an explanatory gap between neural activity and subjective feelings, between the brain and the conscious mind. One belongs to the realm of physics, to space and time, energy and mass. The other belongs to a still poorly understood magisterium of experience’” (Matthews 2016). Again, the “magisterium of experience” can be interpreted, rightly I suggest,as a recovery of the intelligibility and meaning of the universe and ourselves as intelligent in it.
    (paper posted at: https://www.academia.edu/s/4c8348828f)

    My thesis is that what children think of as reality quite early in their lives constitutes a crossroads that can affect profoundly their later educational experiences and choices based on what they think is significant about that and their own reality. That set of early insights can go well, as it did with Einstein, or badly, as it does with so many, e.g., students of science at the higher education level.

    1. Thank you Catherine- and you are right- Einstein is a model for self directed learning and a great example of significance cognition early in childhood. Do you feel that children, as young as 4 and 5, should be taught how to think about thinking? I'm glad you enjoyed what you read!