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Michael ZwaagstraCanadians were saddened to learn that longtime Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek passed away recently from pancreatic cancer.

For more than 35 years, Trebek was a familiar face in our homes. There was no better way of testing your general knowledge than seeing how many Jeopardy! questions you could correctly answer.

The outpouring of emotion over Trebek’s death has been huge. There’s no question that hosting Jeopardy! was his primary claim to fame.

But why did so many people have such a strong emotional attachment to a gameshow host?


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Given the way in which some people, particularly progressive educators, dismiss the value of rote memorization of facts, it seems surprising that Trebek would become such a popular icon.

However, Jeopardy! isn’t just a show where contestants show off that they remember a bunch of random facts. Rather, it’s an opportunity for contestants and viewers alike to test the extent of their general knowledge.

That’s because Jeopardy! questions deal with many topics. Contestants could be asked about anything from William Shakespeare’s plays to the solar system to the civil rights movement. Being able to answer most of the questions correctly in Jeopardy! can be taken as a pretty good sign that you’re well-read.

The top performers on Jeopardy! don’t win by cramming a bunch of random facts into their brains. Rather, contestants are far more likely to do well if they have a broad knowledge base about many topics.

For example, someone who is familiar with Shakespeare’s life story knows the broad narrative of his key plays, and understands the historical context in which he wrote his plays, is far more likely to sweep the Shakespeare category than someone who, without prior knowledge of the playwright, tries to memorize many random facts about him.

A broad and deep knowledge base is essential in Jeopardy! – and in life.

This is why it’s important for schools to have a knowledge-rich curriculum that sequentially builds on knowledge year by year. Commonly referred to as a core knowledge approach, the emphasis is on ensuring that students acquire substantial background knowledge in all subject areas.

For example, instead of simply encouraging students to learn about themselves and their neighbourhoods, they benefit far more from a curriculum that exposes them to people and places they probably wouldn’t learn about on their own initiative.

A good curriculum should help students broaden their understanding by looking outward rather than inward. This is particularly important for students who come from disadvantaged homes since their parents can’t afford private tutoring and probably aren’t taking them on educational trips around the world.

Background knowledge is also key to improving students’ reading comprehension. The more students know about the topic of a book or article, the more likely they will be able to read and understand it. Background knowledge about a topic is a better predictor of reading comprehension than the complexity of the words or sentences within an article or book.

All Canadians should be grateful to Alex Trebek. He reminded us that there’s great value in knowing a lot of facts by memory.

For students, memory work is important work.

Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher, a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, and author of A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning.

Michael is a Troy Media Thought Leader. Why aren’t you?

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