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Video transcript

Presenter intro: Helena Moore

Each of our pupils is individual. Each of them enters the classroom with their own pre-existing knowledge base, drawn from lots of different sources: their experiences, their prior learning, their interests and their values. And this prior knowledge plays an important role in pupil learning. It helps pupils to make sense of what they learn, and to remember in the long term. Teachers need to understand why prior knowledge matters, identify what prior knowledge their pupils have, and know how to use it in their teaching.

Presenter main

Prior knowledge matters a lot. Firstly, prior knowledge helps pupils to make sense of what they’re learning about. If a pupil reads a text about football and they already know a lot about the topic, they will find it easier to access and understand. Secondly, if we want pupils to remember what they learn and be able to use it in the future, it needs to be connected to existing knowledge.

In order to take advantage of prior knowledge, teachers first need to identify what relevant prior knowledge pupils do and do not have, and then decide what to do about it. This may include identifying gaps in prior knowledge. Another way of thinking about prior knowledge is as a mental model. When we ask what prior knowledge pupils have, we’re asking, what might their existing mental model of the content look like? What knowledge might it contain? How well connected is that knowledge? And what gaps or misconceptions might that be?

Once teachers have a better understanding of what their pupils do and do not know, they can use it to inform and adapt their teaching. They can help pupils to recall prior knowledge and point out to pupils how what they’re learning is connected to what they know. Where prior knowledge of content is weak, teachers can use other strategies to help their pupils to access what they’re learning. Like reducing the amounts of new content introduced at one time, breaking down the learning into small steps and using concrete examples. And if teachers identify misconceptions in pupils’ knowledge, they can plan to address these errors. For example, many pupils hold a misconception that things that are heavy sink. Knowing that this is a misconception in advance, a teacher might choose to bring in a heavy object that will float.

One thing to bear in mind is that transferring what we know from one discipline to a new, unfamiliar context can be difficult. Just because pupils know how to analyse a historical source, doesn’t mean they’ll be able to apply the same skills when analysing a poem. The most useful prior knowledge to build on will be that which is closest to the subject specific content that you are teaching.

Presenter exemplification framing

In the following example, you will see an Ambition Institute coach model how they might build on pupil prior knowledge, during a starter activity. As you watch, pay particular attention to how they do the following:

  • Plans to connect new content with pupils’ existing knowledge
  • Links what pupils already know to what is being taught

Exemplification: Ambition Institute Coach

In this example I’m going to model how we can use the starter activity to connect new knowledge with pupils’ existing knowledge. I want you to imagine I’m teaching a year eight History lesson about how religion changed during the reign of Edward VI, the youngest son of Henry VIII. they’ve just completed a starter activity, where they retrieved relevant prior knowledge about the life of Henry VIII, such as identifying his children, their age and their religion. they’ve been asked to hypothesise what impact the children’s religion may have on Tudor England in the future. There are clear and established routines in the classroom for completing stater activities. And pupils complete this work in silence. I’m going to begin my model, having just gathered responses to starter activity.

“So we’ve just recalled the names of Henry VIII’s children, and some of the details about them, including their religion. Today, we’re going to be discussing what happened to religion in Tudor England after Henry VIII died. Some of you have already hypothesized what you think will happen to religion, based on the different religions of Henry VIII’s children. But first, we need to figure out who’s going to take control.

Who do you think is going to succeed to the throne, after Henry VIII dies? So who will it be? Number one, Edward, Henry’s youngest child, or will it be number two? Mary, his eldest daughter. Show me on your hands in three, two, one.

[Teacher pauses and scans the class]

Okay. So lots of you have said, number two, Mary, the correct answer is Edward. So let’s work out why.

Thinking back, why did Henry VIII divorce Catherine of Aragon, his first wife. Tom?

[Pupil gives correct answer]

Exactly. Henry VIII didn’t think that a girl was going be strong enough to rule England. And at that time, male heirs took priority even if they had an older sister. So, Edward becomes King after Henry VIII died.”

In this model, I connected new content to pupils’ existing knowledge. In the first instance, I planned a starter activity where pupils have to retrieve relevant prior knowledge about who Henry VIII’s children were and their religion. As we review the responses to that activity, I could identify and address any gaps in this knowledge. I then made it clear to pupils that they would be able to use what they know about Edward VI to understand how and why religion changed during his reign. I’m helping them to see how their learning fits together.

Secondly, I identified a potential misconception in their prior knowledge. In this example, pupils know that Edward VI was the younger son. But typically, they tend to think that it is the eldest child who succeeds to the throne. I asked a direct question to check for this misconception and then gave the correct answer with a clear explanation about why it was right. Thinking about what pupils already know helps me to identify what knowledge will help them in understanding new learning. As well as anything that might get in the way of it.

Presenter key ideas

This video has given you an overview of the importance of identifying and building on pupils’ prior knowledge. Which of these key ideas, do you routinely address?

  • Taking into account pupils’ prior knowledge when planning how much new information to introduce
  • Planning to connect new content with pupils’ existing knowledge or providing additional pre-teaching if pupils lack critical prior knowledge
  • Linking what pupils already know to what is being taught
  • Structuring tasks and questions to enable the identification of knowledge gaps and misconceptions

Presenter summary

What we know determines what we can learn. Teachers need to think carefully about the prior knowledge that pupils have, so that they can build on what they know and support them when prior knowledge is weak.