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

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting 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.

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Maria Standiford's picture
Maria Standiford
High School English and Drama Teacher

Finding out and basing instruction on what students already know is obviously a good idea, but sometimes I don't do enough of it. I also tend to focus efforts to determine what students know at the beginning of a unit and not throughout the unit. That is a good thing to think about. I use brainstorming and strategies like K-W-L or something similar, but I have not used the ABC Brainstorming. That is a great idea to challenge students to think in a different way and a different approach to keep things varied. I do something similar to the Class Brainstorm Web and sometimes I structure it like Scattergories--students get points or extra points for anything they think of that no one else did. I have also used picture books, but I should do more. My sister taught elementary for several years and is a great resource to help me locate books that would help with specific units. When I do use them, it's true that students like them--even if they feel obligated to roll their eyes at first.

Dee's picture

The second grade team at my school use an anticipated guide to introduce a lesson. This guide is used before reading to activate students' prior knowledge and develop interest in a new piece of curriculum. Students are given a list of words from the unit that they are learning about. They guess if they go with the topic. Students can also tell you what they think the words mean. The ending activity is a concept map.
They place the words in groups and have to tell why they put each group of words together.

Amanda's picture

I could not agree more that, in general, teachers are not activating prior knowledge prior to introducing new concepts, ideas, or lessons. I could certainly picture myself, just as you described, gathering materials for a well-planned lesson before I even knew what my kids already knew about the topic. It's nearly embarrassing because I know that is not a best practice and realistically can be a waste of my planning time without that key information.

Also, I can personally relate to the overuse of K-W-L charts in the professional development provided to our school staff. It often feels redundant and almost an insult to our intelligences. I can imagine children may feel that way as well if such charts were included too often in a classroom's lessons.

Thank you for sharing your ideas for activating prior knowledge! I am going to have to try the "Image Brainstorm" activity this year. Something else I have personally tried with 2nd grade students, especially during lessons about schema, is to use a file folder and write the topic on the outside and allow students to write info they may already know on either post-it notes or index cards and place them in the folder. As we uncover more information they add it to an additional file folder. The kids always have fun with this, especially when I have the folders in a portable mini file container. This can also be a great way to informally assess student learning as an exit activity for a variety of subjects.

Jessica's picture
1st grade teacher

I am so glad I read this post. I often think that my little first graders may not know too much but if I allow them to show me their prior knowledge more often I'm sure they would surprise me with the information that they know. I will be sure to use some of the activities you listed to get my students minds fired up and ready to learn. I especially enjoyed your idea about using picture books. I can just see my students getting excited to learn now. Thanks!

Marlana T's picture
Marlana T
Kindergarten teacher turned stay-at-home mom for the next couple of years..

Very good reminder to use our student's brains to retrieve information and background knowledge. I know I am personally guilty of spending entirely too much time on preparing lessons to help the students gain background knowledge when i could simply ask if the students know and understand what I am teaching. Sometimes it is a legitimtate problem if students have no background knowledge of a subject and need assistance. I really do like your ideas about ways to evoke background knowledge from students and thought that the student classroom web was a teriffic idea.

Karen Flaherty's picture
Karen Flaherty
Elementary Teacher in MA.

I wanted to share one strategy I use before my crafting lesson to activate prior knowledge. The students participate in "Chalk Talk". I place the book I have selected for read aloud on the ledge of the chalkboard and the students look at the picture and title on the cover and use their schema to make predictions about the story. I modeled this procedure to my students so they could do this as an activator as we transition to the carpet. They can write a word or a complete thought. After we have settled in for read aloud we discuss what is on the board and make predicitons as a group about the story. I found that when I give the students the opportunity to use their schema prior to opening the book they are engaged in the reading because they want find out if their predicitions are correct.

Ms. Knight's picture
Ms. Knight
5th Grade Teacher from Portsmouth, VA

This is my third year teaching 5th grade and I really love the tips and ideas for engaging our students. It is amazing how much they already know when you take the time to find out and ask. I will definitely be using some of the suggestions made in my classroom (especially when it comes to science). The children will definitely retain more information when they make connections and we spark an interest in the subject matter. Thank you!

Ms.Garcia's picture
High School English Teacher from Navajo Nation

I understand my students' disdain for KWL! I feel like every "expert" they hire for PD has been someone touting the magic of KWL- it's been abused in so many classes that is lacks the necessary kick start for students to make connections. Instead it becomes a signal to them that this lesson will not be very interesting and they check out. Last year we had a knowledgeable teacher on staff who tried mentioning other ways to activate prior knowledge for our high school students but the presenter cut her off and went back to his KWL chart. I really enjoyed the list here and other comments in the board because they are great ways to start any lesson!

Ally's picture

So often, I catch myself preparing for a new unit on my own. I assume that I know what the kids want to learn and what they already know about a topic. With this mindset, it is easy to see that I am actually making more work for myself! I loved the easy ideas presented in this blog to activate students' prior knowledge. I especially liked the "Class Brainstorm Web". Before beginning a new unit, I need to introduce a part of the theme and discuss with my students what they know about it. We learned about dinosaurs last week and I am just thinking of all of the opportunities that I missed out teaching them because I did not first access their prior knowledge on the subject! This blog was a great reminder of the importance of engaging students' prior knowledge and using it to drive your instruction. Thank you for providing strategies that I need to use more often throughout the school year!

Nancy CJ's picture
Nancy CJ
ESL- Grades K-12

I was so excited to find this post. It brought me back to my college years when I was preparing to become an ESL teacher. Our wonderful professor, Dr. JR, drilled this into our heads, and because of her, building prior knowledge is one scaffolding technique I always use with my students when starting something new. It's amazing how much you can get out of them when this strategy is put in place. Also, thank you so much for sharing the activities you use to tap into prior knowledge. I especially like the "Image Brainstorming" idea which I will use in our next literature unit. Lisa M: Thank you for the link on the KWL.

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