Monday, May 6, 2013

Applying Past Knowledge to New Situations

One of the habits of mind, applying past knowledge to new situations, appears to be such an obvious thing to do, but often in our programs we are not as intentional in activating prior knowledge as we should be.  Activating prior knowledge has long been accepted as a best practice when working with English Learners but in reality, I believe that it is a best practice for ALL learning. 

Young people are not blank slates.  They know things.  Sometimes the things they know are inaccurate.  A recent study asked 5th graders through college seniors to explain why seasons occur.  Unfortunately, they all seemed to have the same misinformation.  But the fact is this, if you don’t ask what people know and how they think things work, you can’t possibly find out what they understand accurately and what they are confused about or simply have no notion about. 

In designing lessons, one of the easiest things to do, each and every time we begin a lesson, is to first identify what we want young people to learn about during the lesson--in other words, state the objective, and then simply ask the question:  “What do you know about ---and then identify the topic?”  This simple question should help you to know what youth need help with and what they already understand.  You can record the information on a KWL or T Chart.
A KWL Chart looks like this:
Want to Know

In the column labeled “know” you write down what youth tell you they know.  If another youth disagrees with the statement--or if you believe the statement is inaccurate, simply record it under the “know” and then highlight it so you can check on the accuracy of the statement.  As a matter of course, you could explain to youth that they need to have evidence for everything that goes in the “know” column which you will gather over time as you work on the topic.  Under the “Want to Know” column you can ask youth to think about what else they would like to know, and of course the “Learned” column is completed at the end when you capture the key learnings of the group.

If the KWL Chart seems too cumbersome, try a simple T-chart.  On one side write what the youth believe to be true on a particular topic and on the other side, record the evidence that you find for that belief. 

Either way, you are helping youth understand that what they are learning today is building on information, knowledge, and experiences that they have had in the past.  You can help them to focus on the points of intersection and the connection to new experiences that are yet to come.
Check out C4K’s Class for Site Coordinators entitled English Learners

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