Prior Knowledge

The Principle: By pre-exposing the child to new information, the brain has an opportunity to form new patterns prior to instruction.

Building a Network of Prior Knowledge

In The Phenomenon of Assimilation, we discussed the need for “downtime,” the time set aside for a child’s brain to assimilate new information. We stated that it was a time of neural reorganization and restructuring.

What can teachers and parents do to shorten the length of this assimilation process? How can we make a child better able to process new information? By encouraging the child to build a network of prior knowledge.

Developing prior knowledge: To shorten future periods of assimilation, a parent or teacher may want to introduce topics days or weeks before a lesson begins. By pre-exposing the child to new information, his brain has an opportunity to form new patterns prior to instruction. “This principle,” writes Eric Jensen, author of Brain-Compatible Learning, “suggests that we ought to be aware of how the brain makes sense out of random information through pattern-making; and the importance of engaging the child with a big picture perspective.” By building a structure of prior knowledge, the child’s brain has time to adjust the puzzle pieces before receiving new incoming information.

Looking ahead: At the beginning of a new school year, when a child brings home a new textbook, the parent may want to write on a calendar the topics to be covered throughout the year. For example, if in January he will be learning about Japan, the parent can help him develop an interest in the country during the fall. Not statistical information like the major imports and exports, but something he can identify with, like a Japanese child’s school day.

Set one clock in the house to Tokyo time and label it “Tokyo, Japan.” The budding geographer will want to know more. When he goes to bed, he will know that his counterpart in Japan is eating breakfast – tomorrow! What is he eating? Does he take the school bus? Is he going to walk to school? Does he wear tennis shoes? Through this wonderful process, the child is developing a geographical and cultural neural network of prior knowledge concerning the country of Japan.

If, next spring, he will be learning about the metric system, the parent can begin in the fall to stir up his mathematical curiosity. Convert his height from inches and feet to meters. When grocery shopping, he could weigh an apple, then convert it to grams. For example, a 7-ounce Granny Smith apple weighs 200 grams. (.035 ounces = 1gram. Therefore, 7 divided by .035 = 200grams.) Would his counterpart in Japan use the metric system? Are Granny Smith apples even available in Japan? Now we are back to our social studies topic. What fruits are indigenous to that region?

Building a network of prior knowledge: Children are naturally curious. This built-in hunger for knowledge includes a system of neural networking that is designed to enhance learning. Helping a child develop preliminary patterns of organization and reorganization through the introduction of prior knowledge decreases the time needed for him to assimilate new information.

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