Get them to the start line

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by Lisa A

Image   Used under Creative Commons license

The research supports a compelling fact: what students already know about the content at the beginning of an inquiry is one of the strongest indicators of how well they will learn new information. Marzano, p1. Students who have a great deal of background knowledge about the topic are likely to learn new information readily and well. The converse is also true. Marzano, (p.3)

For students to ask meaningful questions and engage in rich learning, it is essential they have enough background knowledge to get to grips with a topic. Frontloading, knowledge immersion, attack or, as Ross Todd has put it, “wallowing in it”, gives students the opportunity to discover enough about a topic to start the real work of research.

Koechlin and Zwaan say that:

“students must have a good working knowledge of the topic before they can create questions or select effective keywords. They must have been immersed in the general topic to become familiar with the language of the topic. The time spent … providing exploration activities will pay huge dividends later in the research cycle.” (p.4)

Think of a topic with which you have little, or no, familiarity – for me that might be dinosaurs.  Knowing little about dinosaurs I might start by asking some basic factual questions:

  • What were they?
  • When and where did they live?

Fast forward a few nights – with time spent reading with my 8 yr old who, like many boys, is very keen on dinosaurs, and I have learnt a great deal about different types of dinosaurs. I now know when they lived; what they ate and that they mostly died out millions of years ago. I know some of their names (even if I can’t quite pronounce them –try saying Hatzegopteryx quickly!) and their dimensions. I can now start asking more meaningful questions that will lead to further speculation and deeper learning:

  • Are there any dinosaurs still alive today?
  • Do they look anything like their predecessors?
  • If not, why not?
  • Why did dinosaurs mostly die out?
  • How did mammals survive and thrive?
  • What would life be like if dinosaurs still existed?
  • What might life on Earth look like in another 65 million years?

Marzano (p34-35) tells us that “virtual experiences can enhance background knowledge” and that one of the most straightforward ways to generate virtual experiences is through reading.

Even if our students have limited opportunities and experiences, we can open up a world of virtual experience for them through the resources we provide, both in hard copy and online, that will, as Loertscher, Koechlin and Zwaan tell us (p.6), “get every runner (learner) to the starting line for the main event (the unit to come)."

Lest we think that this is only an issue for our students while they are at school Marzano tells us that:

“background knowledge effects more than just “school learning”. Studies have also shown its relation to occupation and status in life. They found a significant relation between knowledge of this academic information and type of occupation and overall income.”(p.3)

So take a new look at your collection. Think about how you can immerse your students in background knowledge through the virtual experiences they can find in the books, digital and online resources to which you provide access. All the reading they do, both for fun and to discover more about a topic, has far reaching consequences in their lives – and you are the conduit that makes that possible.

“If I had to reduce all of educational psychology to just one principle, I would say this: The most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows. Ascertain this and teach … accordingly.”

Ausubel, Novak and Hanesian, (p.iv) 1978. Building background knowledge for academic achievement. Robert J. Marzano. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, c2004

Ban those bird units: 15 models for teaching and learning in information–rich and technology-rich environments David V. Loertscher, Carol Koechlin and Sandi Zwaan, Hi Willow Research & Publishing, 2005

Build your own information literate school, Carol Koechlin and Sandi Zwaan, Hi Willow Research & Publishing, 2004

Educational psychology: a cognitive view  (2nd ed), David P. Ausubel, Joseph D. Novak and Helen Hanesian.. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1978

Find out more about Inquiry learning.