Portrait of a Learner 4-8

Systems Change
Portrait of a Learner 4-8 > Factors > Background Knowledge

Background Knowledge

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How Background Knowledge connects to...

When we learn new information, we connect this new learning to our existing base of Background Knowledge which provides a schema upon which to integrate new knowledge, supporting learning across disciplines. Students bring a wealth of prior knowledge to school every day, including prior knowledge from school as well as personal knowledge from their own lives. Background knowledge about how the world works (often grounded in STEM concepts) is critical for listening and reading comprehension which are core to learning more broadly. Importantly, research has shown that higher levels of Background Knowledge in the early years can be particularly effective for supporting reading comprehension for students who have weaker reading skills, such as students who have dyslexia, suggesting explicit instruction of Background Knowledge can be a valuable support. As students progress through school and concepts and challenges become more complex, they typically start to rely more heavily on prior Background Knowledge while continuing to build upon it.

Main Ideas

Research has shown that learners are most curious to learn or pursue a challenge when they have some level of Background Knowledge in an area but still have more to learn, rather than having complete uncertainty. That is, when learners can use and build upon knowledge they already have, their Curiosity is engaged and they can more readily engage in higher-order thinking and deeper understanding of the content.

A theory of learning, termed constructivism, is based on ideas of learning that have been around for ages, suggesting that learners construct their own knowledge. That is, learning and knowledge development occurs through discovery. Students are often able to effectively construct their own knowledge through self-directed exploration and question-asking. Allowing students to direct their own inquiry and use self-directed learning strategies can lead to increased learning gains, partly because students are able to tailor their learning to their own needs and Background Knowledge. Additionally, it suggests that constructing knowledge depends heavily on how the learner attributes meaning to the knowledge, based on experience. Opportunities for active discovery through creative exploration, imagination, and Curiosity support this process.

Student's experiential Background Knowledge is meaningful and motivational because it is based on their personal and cultural experiences, needs, and aspirations from their homes and communities. Helping students build and apply their Background Knowledge, and ensuring that their own personal Background Knowledge is validated, acknowledged as a strength, and built upon in school, can ensure they feel empowered to connect what they are learning in the classroom to their own experiences.

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