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

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Online Editor
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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

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

I would like to hear about how you would handle the inevitable obstacles of mandatory curriculum, standardized tests, parental disagreement, and probably overt censorship.
I believe I am the kind of teacher you describe. Perhaps I'm not that kind of teacher, maybe my classes were teacher centered not student centered. But I don't think so.
The reason I'm questioning this prior knowledge approach is because it was the fuse that ignited big fires for me as a teacher. For example, on the second day of my first teaching position I was confronted in my room the first thing in the morning. Four adults and my superintendent were sitting in the dark waiting for me. I turned on the lights because it was a stormy, dark morning (sorry I couldn't resist). And someone spoke. Quite startled I turned and faced them. The day before I asked my students to write their introduction to me. I coached them to think about their families (brothers and sisters), their pets, jobs, hobbies, other interests. A woman got up and approached me. Deliberately encroaching on my safe space. These are her words exactly.
"Who do you think you are? What gives you the right to pry into the lives of our children? That information is none of your business. Where do you come from? Do they snoop into other people's lives where you come from? That information belongs to the families and our church, and no one else. Are you a communist?"
Finally I got a chance to speak.
The level of abrasion that might be caused likely is lower than this in most communities and therefore in most classrooms. These people belonged to a religious cult (Necedah, WI.Goggle Mary Ann Van Hoof) If you are a prior knowledge teacher the structure is in place for a confrontation. And I think the literacy movement does little to nothing to protect or support those teachers.
I taught for 28.5 years and ran into these conflicts constantly. That's why the doorway to my being a bad teacher remains open. Almost no one came into my classroom to observe what was going on. Only the angry parent irate over some thing I did, or said, or asked my student to do.
The majority of public schools in America are teacher-centered, curriculum-driven, cognitively redundant, and creatively oppressed. And that's not what the majority of teachers want. Public school teachers have almost no power to choose and implement instruction outside of the curriculum. In some cases it would be in direct violation of board policy. And if the teacher is a fighter she might be insubordinate.
I had the great good fortune to have James Britton, Nancy Martin, James Moffett as my teachers in graduate school. We talked about this issue often and one solution proposed was,"Shut your door!"
My response was WHY? Shutting the door doesn't work. If your classroom is dynamic the energy and accomplishments penetrate the walls and reach the outside world. Shutting the door implies you're doing something wrong. Classrooms should be as wide open as possible and as safety will allow.
Before you judge this as a fringe issue, take into account the overwhelming conservative posture being demanded or forced on our population. I ask the question again, how do you protect and support the teachers and students engage in literate behavior?
To not be a total drag, here are some activities that engage and develop literate behavior.
1.) Draw a life map. Start from birth to today and draw icons that represent significant events in the author's life. Only allow short phrases, single words, and text message code.
2. White a bio-poen
First name
4 traits (descriptive adjectives or action verbs)
Sibling of ...
Who fears ... (3)
Who loves ... (3)
Who wishes ... (3)
Who gives ... ( 3)
Who thinks ... (3)
Who would like to see ... (3)
Resident of ...
Last name
3) Write a current event story. Write a fiction story with a current event or historal fact that the character of the story have to be involved in. But they cannot change the current event or fact. I had a boy who was into fantasy games and fantasy literature somewhat. He wrote a story about agreat Ninja warrior with super powers. One day the Ninja falls into a time-worm hole and lands at the Kennedy Space center. The Ninja is right beside the booster rockets that suddenly start to hiss, smoke, and roar with fire. The ninja thinks he's being attacked and stabs the leg of the giant. Eleven seconds later the shuttle blows uo, Or, I had another boy who was reading about D.B. Cooper. This student wrote a story about a character that was fed up with rat-race to make money no matter how. He sold everything he owned and bought outdoor survival gear. He went to the rain forest mountains of Washington state. While walking through the rain forest he comes upon a strange sight. A skeleton is hanging in a parachute harness and at its feet is a metal brief case. The character opens the case and finds it full of money. Now the character has a pronlem. Does he take the money and go ack to the old life or stay and finish the journey.
I believe we are at an incredibly crucial point in public education. Public education is smashed to pieces and two intolerant sides are picking up tge ieces. If the conservative mindset gets the power to put the pieces back together learning will slow to a crawl and intolerant war lords will rule. Wemust keep literacy alive. The teachers of literate behavior must be supported and protected.

Peter Pappas's picture
Peter Pappas
Exploring frontiers of teaching, jazz, yoga, Macs, film

Here's "18 Literacy Strategies for Struggling Readers" - based on Defining, Summarizing and Comparing >> from my blog Copy / Paste by Peter Pappas A free PDF download

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

There are many Alternatives to the KWL chart. One I'm familiar with because I use it and teach it to teachers is found in Diane Gess's Teaching Writing: Strategies for Improving Literacy Across the Curriculum. It's called a "KNWLW"--Know, Need to know, Want to know, Learned, Wonder about.

I like this set up because in an era of common core standards the "Need to know" column gives teachers plenty of structure, and the "Still Wonder About" column means that learning isn't a "period" it's a question mark. That is, just because, at the end of a unit, you've Learned things, that doesn't mean learning stops (like a period). Instead, the "Wonder" column reinforces that once we know things, we realize how much more there is to know/wonder about. (I'm riffing off of Neil Postman's observation that "Students enter school as question marks but leave as periods"--a criticism that has never left my mind and which I seek to remedy in my classroom.

Rebecca Alber's picture
Rebecca Alber
Edutopia Consulting Online Editor

Thanks for the comments so far! Please keep sharing your thoughts and ideas on how we can use students' prior knowledge to create more dynamic and effective learning experiences in our classrooms.

I'm especially interested in numerous ways you all are using technology to do so. (Thanks, Lisa M., for Twiducate suggestion to rev' up your use of K-W-L).

Keep 'em coming!


Susan's picture
Fourth grade teacher

One way I tap into students' prior knowledge is to do brainstorming activities. The students call out what they know on the topic as I record their comments on chart paper. Then we try to organize that information into the "big ideas." I also do KWL Charts as well as OWL Charts (What do I observe? What do I wonder? What do I want to learn?). There are lots of ways to activate background knowledge. We just need to make sure that we take the time to do so.

tracyolo's picture

Vicki Risko - IRA president spoke at latest NZRA conference in Rotorua - talked of the importance of this prior knowledge building, as has Alison Davis - see her text "Teaching Reading comprehension" and her latest "Building comprehension strategies - for the primary years". A point Vicki made was that to close the gap in achievement is to build the prior knowledge with students, ie. photos, video, music, etc. etc.....I wonder, childrens questions, etc....lots of those that maybe don't have the content or vocab knowledge can build it to access text. Love this, makes sense. That 'what comes before, matters in the end'. Great words. Such a good idea and so instinctively common sense really.

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

So I've come back to this posting today to read it again and look at the newer comments. @Susan, I like the "OWL" charts. Observation is such a crucial tool, regardless of whether one is a scientist, writer, or carpenter. My dad used to say that the most important and advanced tool we have, no matter what it is we do, is "The Mark-8 Eyeball." (I understand that's a visual-centric view of the world. We can observe in numerous ways. But etymologically, the Latin root, "servare" indicates "attend to; look at".) Anyway thanks for this tweak on the KWL. I'll use this terminology often.

Now , in my second reading of Ms. Alber's post, I noted that the title is a question: "Are You Tapping into Prior Knowledge Often Enough in Your Classroom?" To which I have to answer, "Good God! I hope so. If I'm not, I'm not trained professional."

Thanks for reminding us of the importance of prior knowledge, and thanks to everyone who has suggested ideas for tapping into PK.

RebeccaH's picture
Fifth grade reading and science teacher from Tarpon Springs, FL

Research shows that assessing prior knowledge and building schema between the known and the new learning helps with understanding. I have found this especially true with not only general education students but English Language Learners and students with Autism. When schema is primed before a unit of study in science or beginning a new book, student learning increases dramatically.
Another strategy to try as opposed to the KWL chart is use a "Graffiti Board of Facts". This is when you post all th ethings the class knows about the topic of study: What we knew; What we learned; What we want to learn next. Then give students time to think and process answers. Then let students circulate through the charts adding on to and drawing arrows to make connections between the learning. Students can write their own answers and therefore foster a sense of ownership. (Gregory & Chapman, 2007, pg. 53).
Another resource that works well and teachers can learn a great deal about the background knowledge of their students is by doing a Formative Assessment.(Keeley, Paige. 2008). Author Paige Keeley has written 5 books with probes specifically designed for assessing student's understanding of science concepts. (Keeley, P., Eberle, F., Farrin, L., 2005). Then, when you pair the probe with a formative assessment technique you get a fun way to not only see what students know but you often can spark interest and launch a new science workshop in the process. Afterwards students can look back at the probe and see how their thinking changes because of what they have learned.

Keeley, Paige. (2008). Science formative assessment: 75 Practical Strategies. Corwin Press, Thousand Oaks, CA.

Keeley, P., Eberle, F., Farrin, L. (2005). Uncovering student ideas in science: 25 Formative assessment probes. Vol 1. NSTA Press, Arlington, VA.

James Mac Shane's picture

There are two basic elememts in successful teaching. One is your understanding of the whole natural intellectual span of the subject matters development is students that starts at 2 1/2 to 3 years of age. This process is about each subject matters physical experienceing to absract understandings.

The second is what you have learned from your students about how they fit into this natural span of the subject matter. I was fortunate to understand this learning from ny students early in my teaching carrier.

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