The Importance of Prior Knowledge

By Richard Erdmann & Christine Drew

When we work with teachers and school leadership, we use Learning Principles as foundations for Design Strategies. Principles in something as essential as learning should have application for all students, in all subjects, and all grade levels. In addition, they should extend well beyond the classroom. An element in our first Learning Principle is association. Our brains link information together through neural networks. These networks cause us to be associative learners. This characteristic of learning has an outsized influence when used in beginnings, and we should see it well beyond the classroom. Let’s start with the movies.

The movie begins with an eight-year-old, African American girl, kicking a stone again and again with her foot while counting. “14, 15, 16, prime, 18, prime.” It is 1926 and she is in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. The scene cuts to her school principal’s office where he is trying to talk the parents into letting her go to a boarding school, “West Virginia Collegiate Institute is the best school for Negros in the state,” he begins. The movie is Hidden Figures, the young girl is Kathrine Johnson, and the scene ends with a question. “What will become of her?”

Few people in the movie audience knew who Kathrine Johnson was before the movie was made, so the movie created what we call a prior knowledge platform from which the movie could build. Within two minutes it moved from creating a new knowledge platform to using a well-established knowledge platform shared by all in the audience. The year was 1961 and three African American women were stranded by the side of the road, on the way to work, with a broken-down car. A white policeman stops and in less than a minute everyone in the audience knows that the movie will be about bias based on race and gender. The movie both creates a new prior knowledge platform and relies on an established prior knowledge platform before it really begins.

Romeo and Juliet begins with a prologue as does the movie Coco. Both create new knowledge platforms from which the play and movie can build. Star Wars began its first movie with a prologue also but it was text moving up and into the screen. The movie Black Panther does it differently. It introduces both the protagonist and antagonist in the first scene but the audience does not know who they are for another thirty minutes into the movie. James Bond movies begin with an adventure scene unrelated to the movie but it sets the stage for an adventure film. Our adrenaline is pumping and the audience is primed.

John Hattie is a well known statistician, author of Visible Learning, and he studies learning through meta analysis – a process that draws from literally tens of thousands of studies. He creates categories of influences based on learning impact. John Hattie was our guest for an interview with Alabama educators in January 2020 at the annual Alabama Association of Curriculum Development and Supervision winter conference.

Each of the movies referenced utilized one of John Hattie’s highest ranking influences on learning. It measures in the top ten out of roughly 250 influences. It is the strategy to integrate prior knowledge in a class period, lesson or unit of instruction and there is an optimum place to do it – the beginning. For the AASCD conference, Hattie was paired with a series of discussions about the book Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, the 2002 Nobel Laureate in Economics and a co-founder of behavioral economics. This article, and several that will follow, looks at that pairing.

Even though Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize for economics, he is a psychologist. His book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, formed the basis for the conference conversations on thinking. Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in economics because he challenged the economic theory that decisions are generally deliberative and well-reasoned. Instead, he suggested that our brains take the path of least resistance. They think fast, often based on past experiences, rather than take the arduous route of looking for new information and input. When we are learning, we associate new information with prior knowledge and this frames how we see and interpret the new information. If we want the learner to explore something new, a new foundation of prior knowledge is necessary.

Our 2021 speaker at the AASCD winter conference was Katy Milkman, a behavioral economist teaching at the University of Pennsylvania. Her book, How to Change, suggests that rather than fight our tendencies, we can bend them to be assets. If our brains are lazy in order to conserve energy (they are big energy consumers) and tend to not look beyond what they already know, then structure learning to take advantage of it. Create experiences, new knowledge platforms, in the beginning that hook the learner, frame the lesson and make the lesson easy to follow and the new knowledge will become easier to understand and master. Movies set a stage at the beginning that makes the movie easier to understand.

Movies create a beginning experience that sets up the movie. The movie may rely on existing prior knowledge, as is one of the cases in Hidden Figures, or they might create a knowledge platform that acts as prior knowledge, also done in Hidden Figures. The beginning knowledge platform allows the movie to create a scaffold (another high-ranking Hattie influence) that carries throughout the movie and often references the beginning.

We use movies to illustrate learning, in this case the importance of activating prior knowledge in the beginning, for three reasons. It is visual, the movies that we choose activate a knowledge platform shared by most teachers, and we want our participants to extend their thinking. No matter what taxonomy is used, extending our knowledge into other contexts and for other circumstances is considered a complex thought process. We expect our participants to extend their thinking beyond the movies and into the classroom with what they learned about movies. We model extended thinking because teachers are expected to teach it but we can also move beyond the movies and see how important beginning knowledge platforms are in other fields. Since STEM is such a hot topic today, let’s look at science. In science a new prior knowledge platform often enables the science. Take the platform out, and discovery does not happen.

In 1953 Watson and Crick discovered the structure of DNA. This moved biology from a largely descriptive science to one firmly grounded in genetics and biochemistry. It ushered in a merger of molecular biology and evolutionary biology. This merger suggests that a molecular change facilitating something like learning might occur in a primitive animal and be preserved over time through evolution because it worked. The molecular change caused a successful behavior that was observable and preserved, meaning it might also be found in humans.

At roughly the same time behavioral psychology and cognitive psychology merged with then merged again with the emerging field of neuroscience. The brain had been considered not much more than a transmitter tying a stimulus to a response with little or no thinking involved. The merger with cognitive psychology was like merging the science of the mind with the science of the brain.

Into this cauldron of new science walked Eric Kandel. Eric Kandel is a psychologist who won the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine for his research on molecular changes that result in learning. He first proved that spaced memory retrieval creates a protein that facilitates long term memory (Hattie calls this spaced practice and it ranks at the transition point between an impactful influence and very impactful influence). The protein is not created by cramming, which Hattie calls massed practice. Kandel next discovered neural networks proving that two events occurring simultaneously create neuronal connections that tie the events together as a single memory (association). He did it by experimenting with snails, actually sea slugs, because they had neurons long enough to see with the microscopes of the time. For his experiments to even be conceived, he counted on molecular changes in synaptic connections in sea slugs being preserved through evolution and therefore present in humans. His assumption was controversial but he was proven to be right when he repeated the experiments with mice.

Kandel’s research began in the late 1950s and 1960s. Forty years later another breakthrough took place that formed another beginning – one that will place Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier up there with Newton, Einstein and Galileo. The new platform was a map of human DNA completed in 2002.

Charpentier discovered that Cas9, a protein found in Streptococcus bacteria, attacks the DNA of invading viruses and chops the DNA into pieces and destroys the virus. Doudna heard her present her findings at a conference and asked if she was interested in collaborating. Doudna was working on how to program proteins to do specific work, like cutting up DNA. Together they figured out how to program Cas9 to cut out any targeted gene in a strand of DNA and replace it with a different gene. The mapping of DNA allowed them to locate the genes they wanted cut. Their discovery is called CRISPER.

Think about this. A process like this could cause a weed to self-destruct without a herbicide. It could make a desired plant heat, insect and disease resistant. It could be used to eliminate hereditary diseases (it is in a trial phase for sickle cell – Google Victoria Gray, the first CRISPR recipient for sickle cell). Mapping DNA established a new knowledge platform for Doudna and Charpentier and they won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. As an aside, she also credits her interest to a high school chemistry teacher.

To make the transfer to the classroom easier, think of scientific investigation as learning. Once that bridge is crossed, then their practices, including activating prior knowledge as a good beginning, appear portable to student learning.