James Zull says that "Helping students find connections with their past beliefs and experiences is vital for learning. Knowledge grows as our neurons make new connections, and as they increase or decrease the strength of existing neuronal networks in the brain. Information enters the brain through existing networks of neurons. These existing networks -prior knowledge -are the substrate for constructing new understanding."
It often occurs that we get confused with the concept of prior knowledge and its relationship to construction of new learning. It would only seem logical to always find out what the students know before delivering a class or a course of any discipline. However, the difference resides in what information we would be looking for and the purpose of retrieving that data. When we work with projects it is necessary to spend enough time in the process of exploring previous knowledge through different tools. The links that students can make to their personal experience and lives, the hypotheses and ideas they may have incidentally acquired about a certain topic will all contribute to set their always curious minds to work.
Lev Vygotsky said " Learning always proceeds from the known to the new. Good teaching will recognize and build on this connection."
Some tips to explore prior knowledge:
- Use various tools individually or in groups such as: incomplete phrases or sentences, brainstorming, short multiple choice questionnaires, graphic organizers, cartoons, short videos, pictures, parts of stories and others.
- Accept all the opinions without judging or correcting, stating that you are in an exploratory stage and that all ideas will be welcomed.
- Keep a record of students' ideas and inferences to use at a later stage. Refrain from correcting or indicating the right response.
- Use your observations and collected information to decide on the project's future path.
Good lessons should initiate by favoring risk taking to express ideas through drawings, writings and brainstorming allowing for different views and tolerating wrong or hilarious answers avoiding any judgment. It will be throughout the process of experiencing the unit/project that the students together with appropriate teacher's interventions and class discussions will be able to reflect on their own ideas. Teacher's tolerance, observation and confidence in students' possibilities are of crucial importance at this stage to set the atmosphere for motivation, enjoyment and achievement.
Find more information on how memory works for learning in relation to prior knowledge on an article by neurologist and teacher Judy Willis:
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