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The Power of Prior Knowledge

Updated: Oct 14, 2019

Originally posted 3.2.17

Happy Thursday!

Have you ever noticed that a child can watch the same movie/cartoon/show over and over and over again?  If you have ever watched the same thing or read the same book—particularly if time has passed between the first time you watched/read it and any subsequent times, you are likely to find that even though the show or book are the same, what you take from the show or book has changed.  You catch innuendos that you missed the first time.  You see symbolism that you didn’t notice.  You pick up on the foreshadowing that you overlooked.  How can that be if the show and book are static?   How can you see it with new eyes?  The answer is that YOU have changed.

On Sunday in between watching the commercials during the Super Bowl, I did some reading in the February 2017 issue of Educational Leadership (only because it was on the coffee table and I was too lazy to get up and also not wholly interested in the game).  Anyway, the first full article, “How Knowledge Powers Reading” by Doug Lemov (author of Teach Like a Champion which may be on your bookshelf), focuses on the need to build background knowledge to improve student reading.  To underscore his point, Lemov uses an example of a baseball passage:

Rick Porcello has been the anchor of the Red Sox rotation all year, and tonight, he showed why.  He was perfect through the first 11 outs.  Then he hit Manny Machado.  Porcello shouted, “I’m not trying to hit you, Bro,” to remind the slugger that it would make no sense to have plunked him with a perfect game still on the table, but Machado took apparent issue.  Then, after he scored on Mark Trumbo’s double, he stared down Porcello.  So Porcello proceeded to strike Machado out on three pitches in the sixth, and then fanned him on four in the ninth.

Lemov says, “If you’re a baseball fan, you probably gleaned a great deal of information from this passage…but you didn’t just understand what you read better than a reader with no prior baseball knowledge would have, you also learned more new things” (p. 11-12). 

Lemov’s point is that those who already have background knowledge are able to connect the new information from the text in ways that those who are lacking in background knowledge are unable.  I would argue that this truth extends beyond what we encounter in text to what we encounter in discussions, visuals, etc.  In other words, those who are more familiar will grasp related but new knowledge easier than those who are less familiar AND those who knew more from the start will also be able to add more to their prior knowledge as a result.  It’s a win-win.  It’s also a lose-lose if you do not have the same, robust prior knowledge as the next guy.  Lemov makes the case that this why we need to use embedded non-fiction in the classroom.

I make the case that this growing and developing prior knowledge base is why we need to revisit ideas with our teachers and ourselves.  The first time we introduce something, we/they lack the prior knowledge needed to deeply understand the novel information.  As such, just because the information is shared—even in dynamic and engaging ways—we/they may not latch onto the information to the depth and breadth that we/they will be able to if it’s shared with them again (and maybe again).  Given this, what might you revisit for yourself or with your teachers that may have been missed the first time it was introduced?


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