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Walney School

Prior learning

‘The most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows. Ascertain that and teach accordingly.’ (Ausubel: Educational Psychology: A cognitive View)

We learn new things in the context of things we already know.’ (Willingham: Why Don’t Students Like School)

All new learning requires a foundation of prior knowledge.’ (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel: Make it Stick)

It is far easier for an expert to learn new things than it is for a novice learner because the expert has more prior knowledge to hook the new knowledge onto.  Adults often underestimate their own knowledge and overestimate the knowledge of children. This is the curse of the expert.

This means that we must support our students to build the schema (maps, connections) for them to hook new knowledge onto.  This needs to happen not just at the start of a topic, but at the start of every lesson.

Rosenshine’s first principle is daily review of up to 10 minutes.  We may worry that this takes time away from our new content, from covering the scheme of work. But if we do not take the time to review learning, our students will have nothing to hook their new learning onto and we may as well not bother teaching the new content.

Mary Myatt states that ‘going through a lot of content gives the impression that we have covered a great deal, when in fact, all that has happened is that children have completed some exercises, a lot of them shallow, which give a superficial impression of learning. (The Curriculum: Gallimaufry to Coherence)

‘It makes no sense to race through the curriculum if pupils have not properly understood what they have been taught. (Back on Track)

It is important when we are finding out about students’ prior knowledge that we find out what ALL students know – not just the ones who put their hands up.

Decide whether you need to continue with a recap of previous learning, a reteaching of previous learning, or to skip your plans and move on to more challenging content. The starter question could become the focus of the entire lesson. (Clarke: Formative Assessment)

Examples of classroom practice

  • All students draw a mind map of what they know and remember
  • Write down 3 words that you remember
  • List all the key words
  • 90 second brain dump
  • Quiz – low stakes, electronic, written, multiple choice with coloured cards
  • Put up a picture or series of pictures/photos and students explain about them
  • Key question to answer on whiteboard

Finding out what students know and remember means that their books must be closed.

Address misconceptions that may arise – do not let them go as they will become embedded.

Insist that students purple pen anything they have forgotten or misunderstood.

All that is required is that teachers are flexible and skilled enough to be able to veer off-piste, to collect up confused students as and when required. (Didau: What Do Teachers Think Differentiation Is?)