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Making connections to prior learning and experience

Everything new is interpreted in the light of what is already known.

When students come to make sense of new information, ideas, or concepts, they must do so in terms of their existing knowledge, experience, values, and understanding: everything new is interpreted in the light of what is already known.

Because students have unique packages of prior learning and experience, they can respond in very different ways to the same new learning. But unless they can connect it to and integrate it with what they already know, they will struggle to remember it, let alone understand and apply it.

This is crucially important for those of our students whose cultural background is quite different from our own, because we can make even fewer assumptions about their prior knowledge and experience or about their values and understanding. In such circumstances, a culturally responsive pedagogy is essential.

Culturally responsive pedagogies

Culturally responsive pedagogies operate from the premise that all students have a rich store of prior learning and that, when they feel valued, safe, and invited, they will be willing to share from that store.

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Strategies to elicit prior knowledge

When teachers deliberately build on what their students know and have experienced, they maximise the use of learning time, anticipate students’ learning needs, and avoid unnecessary duplication of content. Teachers can help students to make connections across learning areas as well as to home practices and the wider world.

The New Zealand Curriculum, page 34

Strategies to recognise students’ experiences and learning styles and surface their prior knowledge include:

  • talking to the leaders of the various communities living in the school’s geographical area:
    • What is their history?
    • What cultures are represented?
    • Who are the influential members?
    • How do these diverse groups interact with others in the wider community?
  • beginning the year with a “know the learner” activity to find out about students’ social and cultural backgrounds, interests and experiences, future ambitions, and languages spoken
  • gathering information from students’ learning done earlier in the year or in previous years (using information from school management systems or e-portfolios)
  • diagnostic testing – this could involve class brainstorms for recognising terminology and underlying concepts, together with a “know, understand, be able to do” approach (KUD) as used in differentiated teaching
  • assessing existing knowledge and identifying gaps by getting students to fill in a checklist of learning outcomes and the prerequisite skills they need to study a topic 
  • encouraging students to develop models or concept maps that link their existing knowledge and new learning.

    For example, home economics students could use a Venn diagram to identify and compare the learning they did the previous year on the concept of globalisation (including food labelling, nutrition guidelines, origins of foods, and sustainability) to the topic outline that describes what they will study in a unit on the impact of multinational food companies.

    Physical education students could use a spider diagram to identify the prior knowledge they bring to the study of biomechanics. The diagram could identify what they know about the main principles (projectile motion, momentum, stability, and levers) and the sub principles. If the diagram is on display during the unit, students could keep adding to it as they acquire new understanding.

    Health education students could use post box activities or graffiti sheets to examine big questions or provocative ideas such as:

    • thin people are fit
    • giving up smoking is just a case of mind over matter
    • stomach stapling should be government funded
    • no one goes hungry in New Zealand
    • energy drinks are great for sports people
    • family upbringing is the most important influence on lifestyle.
  • using online surveys or introductory activities to identify relevant personal experience

    For example, home economics students could develop personal profiles (on themes such as “My life in 10 recipes”) that illustrate the significance of certain foods for them. For a unit on sustainability, students could create an artefact box of items that link to the topic being studied by gathering material such as:

    • fast-food rubbish or packaging from the supermarket
    • cartoons relevant to the topic
    • petrol receipts or a plane ticket (this could link to a debate on the carbon footprint of different foods).

    The box could be added to throughout the unit.

    The teacher could refer to the items in discussions about the key ideas being explored.

    Physical education students could use an online survey tool such as SurveyMonkey to ask fellow students what physical activities they engage in for recreation and leisure and why these pursuits appeal to them. This activity would help to identify possible contexts for programme planning that will stretch students beyond their current experience.
    For the kinaesthetic learner, health education students could create an artefact box that has items such as:

    • swimming goggles (this could be linked to the pollution of local waterways, perhaps by dirty dairying)
    • a Pump water bottle (representing the water used in food production). This could be linked to a discussion of the water footprint.

Last updated April 6, 2023