Portrait of a Learner 9-12

Systems Change

Background Knowledge

Factor Connections

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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, leading to a deeper understanding. 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, promoting engagement. 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 cultural and experiential Background Knowledge, or funds of knowledge, is meaningful and Motivational because it is based on their personal and cultural experiences, needs, and aspirations from their homes and communities. While in many cases these funds of knowledge are joyous, such as cultural traditions like celebrations or food, in some cases learners' funds of knowledge may be challenging, for instance experiences of racism or violence. Research suggests that bringing thoughtful conversations to the classroom about difficult funds of knowledge can support learners' Motivation and engagement, as well as their critical consciousness and Civic Mindedness. 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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