Are You Tapping into Prior Knowledge Often Enough in Your Classroom? | Edutopia
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Are You Tapping into Prior Knowledge Often Enough in Your Classroom?

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Online Editor

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.


Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Online Editor

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

Pamela's picture

Being a teacher of mathematics, I see many children who walk into my classroom on the first day of school, with a negative opinion of the subject matter, simply due to prior experiences. They "don't like math," and when asked to recollect what they studied last year, many tend to think they've forgotten most of what they learned. However, this is often not the case at all. Some students just need some more prompting and support to full forth previously learned knowledge. A K-W-L chart is just the thing to accomplish this feat! On the first or second day of class, I typically have students fill out a K-W-L chart about both the previous and current years' curriculum. This activity's purpose is two-fold: it gives me an idea of what levels of ability and knowledge I have in my classroom, and it also builds up student confidence to realize that they recall and know more than they think they do! While the K-W-L chart is not the most exciting activity for students to participate in, it has always worked well for me when used in this manner.

Kelly Glasgow's picture
Kelly Glasgow
Third grade STARS teacher from Clearwater, FL

I teach a STARS class in third grade and most if not all of the students are repeating third grade. This is my second year teaching the program so I am learning as I go. I am currently getting my Master's Degree through the UF Lastinger Program and I have learned many new things already that I am excited to implement into my classroom. In regards to this particular topic I have never really gone deeply into accessing my students prior knowledge on concepts. Now knowing things about it and how much more time I could save it seems silly that I have not been doing this in the past, especially since my students are repeating the same grade. I am sure there are many concepts that they may already have knowledge of or may have even mastered. I could be extending their thinking instead of reteaching the whole concept. My differentiated instruction course taught me many ways to do this. For instance, Gregory & Chapman list many ways to learn about students prior knowledge: Squaring Off, Yes/No cards, Graffiti Board Facts, etc. (pgs. 49-53). These are some really neat ideas and new ways them just using a KWL chart which many students have used consistently and may be bored with.

Gregory, G. & Chapman, C. (2006). Differentiated instructional strategies: One size doesn't fit all (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Megan Gaul's picture
Megan Gaul
Fourth grade Language Arts teacher from Burlington, New Jersey

Preview Guides can be used to activate prior knowledge in any content area that requires reading text. They can be useful at the beginning of chapters, units, or themes.
Preview Guides consist of a series of key statements taken from the text that students will be reading. Students respond to each statement, preferably no more than twelve, as to whether they agree or disagree with the statements. It is important to use statements that represent the most important ideas in the text. Statements should be in the order in which they appear in the text.
All opinions and ideas should be accepted during the pre-reading discussion. As students read the text opinions and ideas may be modified.
This activity helps students set purposes for reading and can also be used to spark discussions both before and after reading the text.
What I really like about this activity is that students can work together cooperatively and learn from one another (Czarnecki, J., 2001).

Czarnecki, J. G., 2001.Preview Guides. Retrieved from

Nicole Cameron's picture
Nicole Cameron
second grade teacher - GA

Studies show that learners learn by inquiring and reflecting. Digging into prior knowledge allows students and opportunity to reflect on what they already know and build new information upon that. I begin my lessons with the question, "tell me what you know about...". If the day before I introduced a lesson about land formations, I would begin todays lesson by asking, "tell me what you know about irrosion?" I give the students an opportunity to reflect on what they already know, and we build off of their prior knowledge to include new information. Not only is this an affective teaching strategy, it is also a life long skill that will benefit young learners through out their life. The ability to be reflective both personally and professionally allows for deeper thinking and more effective performance.It has been suggested that the greatest thing we can accomplish with our students is to instill in them the desire to be a reflective thinker. To think independently and question the status quo, to seek the truth to the very best of their ability. If we made this a priority in our students their learning would take on a whole new level.

Hudson Don's picture
Hudson Don
Prematurely retired high school English teacher because of blindness (legal

"Studies show that learners learn by inquiring and reflection". Yes, we know that! But if you take all the classrooms, all the teachers, all the schools, and all the school districts in this country. what percentage of teachers, curriculums, mandated study styles and mandated content is that? It's huge in comparison to schools where children learn by inquiry and reflection.
I know I'm a wet blanket on the heat of this progressive movement. But I have been at the point where educational progress meets educational tradition. It's rare when educational progress is not stopped and destroyed at that point. Even in programs, schools, and districts that have a proven record of success. Case on point: the Little Rock, AK, school district, this year, named their validictorian, an African-American girl with the highest GPA in her class, active in extra-curriculars, and very active in community service. Two days after she was told she had been named validctorian, the district said they re-evaluated the situtation and withdrew her award and gave it to someone else. Yes, someone white! Any documentation of the process of this change suddenly disappeared. This case is now in federal court claiming violation of the girl's 14th ammendment rights.
How many years has it been since federal troops were sent to Little Rock to desegrate the schools? After all those years it is a de facto truth that Little Rock schools are not desegrated and it would not surprise me if federal troops were sent to Little Rock to make sure the school district complies with the court decision.
What chance does a teacher in Podunk Junction, that guides and supports her students to learn "by inquiry and reflection", have against the conservative zealots, and the I-did-it-this-way- and-so-this-is-the-way-my-kid-will-do-it, no change artists?
It's my experience these people out number the "inquiry and reflection" people thousands to one. I believe it is wrong and unfair to talk about inquiry and reflection without simultaneously talking about how much and what kind of resistance these changes will meet.

Garreth Heidt's picture
Garreth Heidt
High School Liberal Studies teacher, Design-minded educator, Forensics Coach


I don't think you're being a "wet blanket on the heat of this progressive movement" because tapping into prior knowledge isn't, at least to my mind, a progressive concept. (From the OED: "Progressive: (of a group, person, or idea) favoring or implementing social reform or new, liberal ideas). Piaget noted the importance of prior knowledge in his work with child development and the concept is at least as old as that.
In the second part of your posting, you discuss an issue of social justice and seeming lack of social reform. In that instance, I'd say you're certainly talking about regressive practice vs. progressive socio-political ideas. But I'm not sure I see the link between tapping into prior knowledge and the regressive nature of the anecdote you relate.

Julie's picture
Fifth grade teacher from Indiana

This post is a good reminder as to how important it is to activate background knowledge when introducing a lesson. I think sometimes that we, as teachers, get in such a hurry to get everything finished, that we forget how important this is. I ask open-ended questions at the beginning of many of my lessons to activate prior knowledge and to get everyone thinking. I think that when I have chosen to not take the time to activate prior knowledge, my students have not been as engaged in the lesson. When we show the students how what they're learning relates to them, the learning becomes more meaningful and beneficial to them.

Merrill Watrous's picture
Merrill Watrous
Community College Education Teacher and Supervisor, Writer in Education

We have so much to teach and so little time with which to do it. If we are judged as teachers by how well our students score on tests, we must believe that what we do with project learning will contribute to our students' success on those tests. Alber asks us to read picture books to students. Yes! And then we should support them as writers of picture books.

Writing and illustrating picture books with children takes time, but when students write about what they care most about, illustrate their own words, and revise and edit their work to publish it for a wider audience, what they learn will stick.

Elliot Eisner reminds us that: "Efficiency is largely a virtue for the tasks we don't like to do; few of us like to eat a great meal efficiently or to participate in a wonderful conversations efficiently or indeed to make love efficiently. What we enjoy the most we linger over. Children, like the rest of us, seldom voluntarily pursue activities for which they receive little or no satisfaction."

My students did what they at first feared they couldn't do when they wrote their own picture books; they invested time and talent and effort until the work itself carried them along. We all hope to do something extraordinary with our lives, no matter what our circumstances. Writing books that others come to love reading is an extraordinary accomplishment, whatever the age of the author.

NicholeP's picture
High School Mathematics Teacher

I have totally enjoyed reading about the different strategies on prior knowledge, especially K-W-L. We currently use this in the math department but not as a prior knowledge activity. We have the students use it with story problems and multi-step problems, that way they can easily see the problem broken down and hopefully have a better chance of figuring out what is actually being asked of them along with actually solving the problem. It has seemed to help this past year but we are still looking for other strategies.

Kim Woodard's picture
Kim Woodard
2nd grade teacher

I also think it is a must that we tap into our student's past knowledge. I love your idea of using picture books in the classroom. There is never enough time to just read a story to students anymore. Connecting a book to a daily lesson helps give your visual learners something to pull from and your auditory learners benefit from the reading of the story. A good example that I think of here is the Greedy Triangle story that ties in perfectly with a math lesson. My second graders like this book and I feel that it is a good way to promote reading and the importance of A.R. and it also helps introduce my math lesson for the day.

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