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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Are You Tapping into Prior Knowledge Often Enough in Your Classroom?

Learning progresses primarily from prior knowledge, and only secondarily from the materials we present to students, studies show. Think about that. We teachers spend so much time gathering materials -- important and necessary for good instruction -- but are we often enough using the greatest tools right there at our fingertips? All of those young minds, ready to go!

We are all guilty of hurrying through teaching some concept or skill, and not taking the time to slow down, ask the kids what they already know about the matter, and make important connections to what is to come. I'd like to offer some research behind why we need to cut that out and activities to help us.

The Research Behind It

Constructivism proposes that new knowledge is constructed from old. It holds the educational belief that as teachers, it's essential that we make connections between what new is being presented with students' prior experiences.

The Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget believed educating children to be one of society's most important tasks. And after much research, he concluded youngsters, like adults, combine prior knowledge with experience. Learners make sense of their experiences (and learning) using their own schemata. And there's John Dewey, a child-centered educator, as well as philosopher and psychologist, considered one of the first educational reformers. Dewey focused on the growth of a child's capabilities and interests more than the mandates of a curriculum. And both of these early education researchers influenced the development of constructivism.

Use It or Lose It -- PK Strategies

Launching the learning in your classroom from the prior knowledge of your students is a tenet of good teaching. In an earlier post about scaffolding techniques, I also wrote that asking students to share their own experiences, hunches, and ideas about the content or concept of study and relating it to their own lives should be done at the start of a lesson -- and throughout a unit of study.

Try these activities for firing up those young minds and tapping into prior knowledge:

  • Image Brainstorm. Project an image on the LCD projector or smartboard and ask students to tell you everything they can about the picture. Choose images that make sense to them and also allow you to connect to the new content and/or concepts students will be learning. I often would use an image of famous artwork to launch our discussion on tone and mood in a particular poem or short story.
  • K-W-L Chart. Tried and true, yes, though I have to say, it doesn't work with all subjects and can be an overused activity for assessing prior knowledge. Use sparingly and dynamically.
  • Picture Books. No matter the age, they work like magic. If there's a concept or skill you are about to introduce, find a children's book that's related in some way and that your students may be familiar with. Read it aloud and watch the bells go off.
  • ABC Brainstorming. I love this one. On one sheet of paper students make a box for every letter of the alphabet and then (they can do it in pairs) brainstorm a word or phrase that starts with each letter. For example, if kids are about to study the history of slavery in the U.S., they may write things like: "Africans" for a, "boat" for b, "chains" for c, etc.
  • Class Brainstorm Web. Free-for-all, classroom fun I like to call it. After writing a word or phrase in a circle (whiteboard, poster paper) have students write as many words connected to it that they can think of around it. For example, you might write "photosynthesis" in the center and kids write things like, plants, green, sun, water, and light. I like to use a timer with this activity to create a sense of urgency (which adds to the fun). Keep the web visible throughout upcoming lessons and refer to it as you explore photosynthesis in-depth, even asking them to add words and facts to it.

If we don't ignite the prior knowledge of our students when we teach, we may fall prey to what the late Brazilian educational theorist Paulo Freire referred to as "the banking concept" in pedagogy -- treating students as if they are empty vessels waiting to be filled with the knowledge of the teacher. Basically, taking on a view that the kids have very little to offer to the classroom learning and discussions.

Thank goodness we know this to be a ridiculous notion.

We also know that when we use the schemata of students to genuinely shape and guide the learning, we may take some unexpected roads -- changing lesson plans and learning outcomes all together. And that's okay.

Please share with us your strategies and activities for activating the prior knowledge of your students.

Comments (41)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Eliza's picture
Eliza
K Teacher

I use KWL Charts and make word webs in my K classroom when we start a new subject. It helps engage students and it shows young children how much they know about the topic before we start. It builds excitement about the subject. The sharing also builds language skills and helps children express their thinking which is a difficult skill for some children. The sharing also builds background knowledge for students that are lacking personal experiences in some areas. Thanks for reminding me about this being an important step in my lessons. I had not thought about using them as tools for math. I will reflect on this idea.

Regina's picture

I agree that accessing prior knowledge is beneficial to student learning. As educators, sometimes we fail to connect prior experiences to current lessons. We tend to access prior knowledge for specific lessons, but we must activate this knowledge at the beginning of each lesson. I enjoyed reading the activities for tapping into prior knowledge. I really like the ABC Brainstorming activity. This activity would allow students to expand their vocabulary as well as activating prior knowledge. I will be implementing some of these activities this school year.

Shelly Reese's picture

I enjoyed reading this article and I agree that we do not tap into what our students know enough. Oftentimes, our students can surprise us with all they know. Picture books truly capture the interest of any grade level, and can spark great discussions. I used the ABC chart after a field trip and it was amazing how many words the children were able to come up with. They really surprised me, which is what often happens when we present them with a challenge! I also want to comment on the part about having children brainstorm all they know about a particular subject. I am currently working on a fish theme with some students in summer school, so today we just observed goldfish and they were to write down anything they noticed. It was such a great way for them to generate thoughts and then practice their writing skills by recording it on big paper. When they can see real life objects, their interest is peaked. Thanks for the other ideas on accessing prior knowledge!

Lauren E's picture

I greatly enjoyed reading about all the different strategies and plan on implementing many of the strategies this upcoming school year. I have used the K-W-L chart strategy numerous times in all areas but felt I needed so some new strategies to enhance my students prior knowledge. I have learned that students need to be taught how to activate their prior knowledge from a young age. As students learn to make connections from their experiences, they begin to develop a foundation in which they can place new ideas or concepts. Helping student's to activate their prior knowledge is very important because it provides a foundation for comprehension.

kris barnhart's picture

I do not believe that there is any stopping prior knowledge nor should there be. The instant I show a book cover or any sort of pictures to my students they immeadiately begin making connections to what they know, where they have been, what they like, etc. I believe that it is human nature to scaffold one's own learning and identify what is known to move into new learning. It is some of the most valuable time with students and I often let it go for longer than I can really afford but there is nothing like learning enthusiasm to engage students.

Trent's picture
Trent
High school English teacher from Indiana

I agree with the importance of accessing prior knowledge to maximize learning. I believe the ability to access prior knowledge is at the core of higher level thinking. The ability for students to make connections does make learning more meaningful and therefore allows for retention. In this world we teach in of standardized tests and the pressures that accompany very often stand alone exercises are used to "teach the test." Activities that allow for connections and accessing of prior knowledge while building new knowledge is true learning. I agree with Julie who is also feeling that Indiana testing stress we do very often get into a hurry and try to squeeze too much in without activating prior knowledge. I am going to make a real effort to activate prior knowledge and engage more students in my classroom.

Teri's picture
Teri
Junior High Wellness Teacher

I am looking forward to using some of these strategies in my classroom. At the beginning of my class, we do some bellringer work to get the students started but it is always a lot like the image brainstorming provided above. I really think that using some of the other strategies you have listed will bring some excitement to my classroom and give the student's something different to look forward to each day!

Julia's picture
Julia
Middle School Math Teacher

I really enjoyed this article about tapping into students' prior knowledge when we show them new concepts. I agree this is important and possibly not done as much as it should. I am excited to try the activities you listed. Even though I knew of these activities, I had never tried them at the start of a new concept to access prior knowledge. Thanks!

Jessie's picture
Jessie
Kindergarten Florida Teacher

Thank you for your reminder about tapping into our students' prior knowledge. I agree that it is something we, or at least me, are guilty of at some point during the school day. It is easy in Kindergarten to assume that they just need filled up rather than to explore what they know. It's easy to forget that even though they are little they still have a wealth of knowledge. I really like your idea of the ABC brainstorming. It may be a little difficult at my grade level but could easily be done if we chunked it and worked a little at a time. I have used the image brainstorm in the past as it makes a great writing prompt to see what they know. Thanks!

Mike's picture
Mike
4th classroom teacher

I thoroughly enjoyed reading your article and couldn't agree more that educators at all levels need to be accessing student prior knowledge consistantly throughout the learning processes of each unit. I beleive that educators today don't focus as much on accessing prior knowledge due to the increased pressures on teachers for their students to perform well on standardized local, state, and district assesssments. Their focus is on making sure that they've covered the curriculum that is being assessed. As you pointed out in your post, this is a critical mistake. If we as educators want students to learn and perform to the best of their abilities we need to ensure that we are taking students as far as we can with each unit of study. We can't possibly being accomplishing this goal if we don't already know what our students know about a particular subject. I think this topic of accessing prior knowledge would make a wonderful PLC (professonal learning community) topic for schools to explore to evaluate the effectiveness of the instruction that is being delivered to the children. Finally, I think all of your ideas for accessing prior knowledge were wonderful! As I read through them I found that I use all of these activities, though not exactly the way you described them, in my classroom. I'm definitely going to take the activities you've presented here back to my classroom in order to add some spice to them and make them exciting again for my students. Thanks for all of your advice and insight and good luck with this coming school year!

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