When learning happens?
The idea that people's ability to learn something new follows from what they already know is not new, but more recent research findings have shown that the ability to relate new information to prior knowledge is critical for learning. It is not possible for someone to understand, remember or learn something that is completely unfamiliar. Some prior knowledge is necessary to understand the task at hand. But having the prerequisite prior knowledge is still not sufficient to ensure adequate results. People must activate their prior knowledge in order to be able to use it for understanding and for learning. Research shows that students do not consistently see the relationships between new material that they read and what they already know. Research also shows that learning is enhanced when teachers pay close attention to the prior knowledge of the learner and use this knowledge as the starting point for instruction.
What teacher can do in the classroom?
Teachers can help students activate prior knowledge and use it for the task at hand. This can be done in a number of ways.
• Teachers can discuss the content of a lesson before starting in order to ensure that the students have the necessary prior knowledge and in order to activate this knowledge.
• Often students' prior knowledge is incomplete or there are false beliefs and critical misconceptions. Teachers do not simply need to know that students know something about the topic to be introduced. They need to investigate students' prior knowledge in detail so that false beliefs and misconceptions can be identified.
• Teachers may need to go back to cover important prerequisite material or ask the students to do some preparatory work on their own.
• Teachers can ask the kind of question that helps students see relationships between what they are reading and what they already know.
• Effective teachers can help students to grasp relationships and make connections. They can do so by providing a model or a scaffold that students can use as support in their efforts to improve their performance.
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