One of the foundations of effective rigorous acquisition as well as strong support for struggling students is that teachers activate prior knowledge. Activating prior knowledge not only helps students make connections between what they know already and what they are about to learn, it helps students become mentally engaged in upcoming learning.
We’ve been hearing about the power of activating prior knowledge for a long time, but at Mindsteps, we’ve seen many activating strategies used ineffectively over the last few years. If you want to use activating strategies more effectively, there are three things to keep in mind:
- Activate Relevant Prior Knowledge: What students know already is a great tool for helping them learn something new. Their pre-existing knowledge acts as a foundation on which they can build new knowledge and helps them connect what they are learning to what they know already. These kinds of connections are what makes new learning make sense. Think about what students have learned already and how it might help them learn the key concepts of an upcoming lesson. Be very strategic here and only choose the prior knowledge that is directly related to what you want students to learn. Then choose an activating strategy that not only surfaces that prior knowledge, but also sets students up to be successful with the upcoming lesson format. For instance, if you want students to read a passage, you will need an activating strategy that helps reacquaint them with the foundation concepts and key vocabulary in the reading passage as well as prepares them to read more successfully. Advanced organizers may work better in that situation. However, if you are preparing the class for a discussion or interactive lecture, brainstorming or KWL’s might work better. Or, if you are building on previous concepts as part of a sequential lesson, then using a word splash might make more sense. Check out this month’s TIP sheet (available to newsletter subscribers only) for how to use these activators with your students.
- Minimize Irrelevant Prior Knowledge: Not all activating strategies are created equally. Sometimes in an attempt to entice students to learn, we can actually activate the wrong kind of prior knowledge. Instead of preparing students for learning, we actually distract students with prior knowledge that is unrelated or that makes new learning even more confusing. Be careful about using drama and emotion or interesting tidbits to stimulate interest, especially when students have limited background knowledge to begin with. While these additions may be related to the topic, they are not directly relevant to what you want students to learn and therefore can serve to distract students from what’s really important. It’s okay to include stories and interesting details as long as they are directly related to your learning objectives.
- Compensate for Missing Prior Knowledge: Sometimes students don’t have the prior knowledge they need to really understand and master the concepts in an upcoming lesson. Thus, instead of activating prior knowledge, you will need to create it. You can design activities for students 2-3 days before the lesson that help students develop the relevant background knowledge they will need for an upcoming lesson. Such activities can include giving students a reading (on their reading level) that explains background knowledge, teaching a mini-lesson on the topic, showing students a clip from a movie or documentary and following up with a class discussion, or give students a diagram, illustration, or multimedia presentation. These and other methods provide students with an important knowledge base on which they can build in the main lesson. The point is to create activities that build relevant background knowledge prior to exposure to the new lesson content. Then, just before the lesson, you can use activating strategies to remind students of what they just learned and how it will relate to what they are about to learn.
Here are a four questions to ask as you plan your activators:
- Does my lesson lend itself to an activator? Not every lesson needs an activator. Activators work best with lessons that involve concepts. Activating strategies may not be as useful in lessons that involve procedural skills.
- Do your students have the prior knowledge they need? If your students already have considerable prior knowledge, they may not need additional support. If they have little or no related prior knowledge, then you will need to build prior knowledge first.
- Are there any distracting details in your lesson that might activate irrelevant prior knowledge? Eliminate any details that may distract students from the main point of the lesson.
- What is the most appropriate activator given the type of background knowledge students need and how you want them to use it in an upcoming lesson? Choose activating strategies that directly set students up to be successful in your upcoming lesson.
Click here to learn more about activating prior knowledge.