Story about Pat.

Pat slowly got up from the mat, planning the escape.  Pat hesitated a moment and thought.  Things were not going well.

What was most bothersome was being held, especially since the charge had been weak.  Pat considered the present situation.

Pat was aware that it was because of the early roughness that the penalty had been so severe – much too severe from Pat’s point of view.  The situation was becoming frustrating; the pressure had been grinding too long.  Pat was being ridden unmercifully.

Pat was getting angry now and felt it was time to make the move.  Success or failure would depend on what Pat did in the next few seconds.

Some Background Knowledge for You

This is taken from a required reading during my first grad school class, almost exactly a decade ago.  I can’t remember the name of the book or the name of the class, but it was then that I decided to try typing the text up and making a transparency to place on the good ol’ overhead projector (no doc camera or Smart Board then!).

As I revealed each section of the text, I had students “stop and jot” their thoughts in their reading notebooks.  As more and more text was revealed, students were instructed to revise their thoughts and/or accumulate evidence to support their theory.  We then discussed.

“It’s about a football game.” 

“I think it’s about a prison escape.” 

“Maybe it’s an animal trying to escape from its cage?” 

“I think it’s about a robot.” 

Now the robot answer caught my attention.  I remember specifically later using this student’s response to make a point to the class.  You see, the student who gave this answer was well-known for his love and pursuit of technology and various engineering projects/experiments.  He had worked a full year on his science fair project (most kids spend the week before it’s due…), which ended up being a functional hover scooter!  I’ll never forget that incredible hover scooter, and I’ll never forget how his background knowledge COMPLETELY colored and shaped his understanding of the text.  This was the point I made to the class.

Even more eye-opening to me was how students, such as this boy and others, just omitted any text that didn’t mesh with their understanding.  For instance, many students thought the text was describing a football game because of the mentioned penalty and roughness; however, they completely filtered out and discounted text details that didn’t fit, such as “slowly getting up from the mat.”

Background Knowledge – A Powerful Filter

Background knowledge, or schema, is comprised of all of our experiences, memories, and knowledge that we bring to our reading (and to the world!).  It filters EVERYTHING!

As teachers, it is vital that we understand this.  And this understanding should filter the way we teach!

We must work to build necessary background knowledge for our students.  Background knowledge is the velcro needed for new information and understanding to “stick.”

And as teachers, I believe that it’s just as, if not more important, that we work to help students understand this.  We must help students build metacognitive skills that equip them to purposefully – and independently – activate their own background knowledge – before, during, and after reading.  We must also help them to recognize when their lack of background knowledge is interfering with their understanding, and provide them with strategies to independently “fill in the gaps.”

Even more, we need to help students recognize when they’re spontaneously activating their background knowledge and the difference between this and purposefully activating their background knowledge.  A student should be well-versed in both.  Here’s a quick example of what it may look like:

Purposefully activating background knowledge – “Hmm, what background knowledge do I have/need that can help me here?”

Spontaneously activating background knowledge – “Oh, this reminds me of ______________.”  “I just used my background knowledge!”

Wrestling with Background Knowledge

Did you guess that the text was about a wrestling match? Great job!  You had the background knowledge to do so!

I’ve used this excerpt every year since with my students.  Most of my fifth graders don’t end up guessing wrestling, but what amazes me is how the wrestlers – regardless of their ability level as a reader – seem to get it right away, or at least fairly quickly.  But why would I expect differently now that I have the background knowledge about the power of background knowledge?

Some Background Knowledge about Background Knowledge’s Role in Student Learning

How powerful and important is background knowledge?  Check out this post by Edutopia, which summarizes the main principles found in a report called “The Science of Learning.” You’ll see that of the six summarized principles, background knowledge is explicitly discussed in principles 1 and 3, and could probably easily be included in principle 4.  That means background knowledge could make up 50% of the main principles capturing cognitive science on how students best learn.

If we’re going to advance learning outcomes, educators should know and apply this!