Prior Knowledge and The Flow of Learning


A friend gives you free tickets to an upcoming concert.  Although the group is fairly popular, you are not familiar with the artist’s body of work.  Assuming you elect to go, what do you do next?

Between now and the day of the concert, here’s betting that your old pal Google comes into play at some point.

What is the artist’s body of work?  For me, iTunes previews would quickly come into the picture.  I might even scan the reviews.  Then perhaps a dive into YouTube in a quest to actually see the band in action.  Maybe even an interview with the lead singer?  Does the band have a website?  What else have they done?  What does the bio tell me about where they are from and perhaps why they do what they do?

This approach works.  We know it does.  We’ve done it ourselves a thousand times before in similar situations.


Building schema

Here-  you are building schema.  It is what you do.  In this particular scenario…  it is what our students do as well.  Schema.  In terms of learning theory, the word was first used by Piaget as early as 1926.  Apparently, R.C. Anderson, a respected educational psychologist, expanded these notions into a more solid theory.

My wife and I just recently scored tickets to see Mason Jennings at a small club in Lawrence, Kansas.  I have listened to his music for years.  Erin however, has only known him from his appearance in the many playlists and mixes heard in the car and throughout the house.  His latest release wholeheartedly scored a new fan in my wife.  She had heard my favorite tracks many times over, but she wasn’t really privy to his larger body of work.

So what did she do?  Much as you might expect, she trolled the web finding as much as she could.  Given such a rich opportunity to experience an artist doing what they do best… live and in person…  she was going to make the most of it.  It was while watching these actions unfold that it hit me how similar this very behavior is to one I strive to honor as a classroom teacher.

Mason Jennings

We’re more attuned to a musical performance when we can identify with the art as it is unfolding.  This is not “rocket science,” folks.  I doubt anyone reading this far believes so.  Therefore, a quick transfer into the classroom should be a fairly easy proposition, right?

So what is it then that prevents us from a similar approach to concepts within our core content areas?  Why would we not make an attempt to harness this simple passion for constructing knowledge in other areas?  What do we know about the flow of learning?

Learner-based learning

“But I don’t get to take my kids to something as cool as a concert.”  I get it.  I understand that external holdup.  However, aren’t we the content experts our community pays to deliver lifelong learning for our children?  Can we not impart at least a sense of excitement about some future learning goal in order to generate student engagement toward that end?  Here’s me thinking that if we are to swallow the goals of problem (or better “challenge-based”) learning as our instructional model… we had first better devour the concept of establishing an environment that honors the learner first and foremost.

A purely constructivist learning environment is one that we are not remotely able to deliver given the rigid accountability brought on by NCLB in the last ten years.  Design, yes…  deliver, no.  And yet, that does not in any way stop us from building in the essential constructs of student-centered pedagogy.  We simply have to set students up to win when it comes to grasping the core concepts of our curriculum.

pond vegetation

Aquatic example

A few weeks ago, I knew that I would be taking my Dual-Credit Biology students to the MWSU campus to conduct a couple of field studies concerning species diversity.  One of these prescribed lab events required that students sample organism populations within a gorgeous little freshwater pond found on site.

If I hadn’t started with what students know…  their current schema…  I would have driven them down a path that many were quite unfamiliar with.  Who would guess that Midwestern students weren’t intimately acquainted with the life found in a freshwater pond?  I wouldn’t exactly call my school an “urban” school.  And yet, three or four out of our group had almost zero familiarity with pond life at all.  Yes, these students had never been to a pond.  Sure, I could have asked a question to elicit this data.  However, this realization would do little good toward building student knowledge for each of my twenty students individually.  Diversity, schmercity.  That knowledge would help me, not we.

One of the main uses of our online network is rich reflection.  This reflection is found throughout all phases of learning from engagement to evaluation.  In this case, we did what we normally do.  Prior to embarking on a well-worn lab design…  we explored what we already knew about ponds.  This was done first on real tables with real chart paper, real markers, and real student conversation.  Our work then proceeded to the digital realm to find anything and everything we could about the inhabitants and structures of freshwater pond ecosystems.  Our biology textbook can only deliver generalities.  Students gathered this information and presented it to one another and the world on a forum thread at Principles of Biology.

Students with a rich schema in this area were allowed to demonstrate that reality as well as search for more in-depth knowledge.  Students for whom the pond was a mystery…  and likely wrapped in misconception…  were also allowed to explore and share.  The difference is found within the reflections posted at the site.  In this arena, at this point, student knowledge isn’t judged for its breadth and depth.  Instead, it is valued for its inherent honesty and the deep reflections that follow.

a co-examination

After the hands-on field study at the pond, students were invited to return to the site and post direct replies to their previous posts…  highlighting the learning that took place and the knowledge they had constructed throughout the process.  What we end up with is a digital record of these experiences unfolded transparently in digital space for all to see.  And they do see.  Our site analytics show a flurry of activity surrounding this post as well as others.  Principles of Biology is full of similar cycles surrounding many topics embedded within our curriculum.

As students and teacher, we know we enter any given concept at different places.  We also know that through loosely-structured (but structured nonetheless) classroom experiences we will all push our knowledge far beyond what it was prior to engaging in the topic.  We also know that this will be done not only for ourselves, but for those who live vicariously through us via the web.

Or, I could line up the curriculum goals and objectives and march forward to hit each one in step whether or not the students “get there” with the rest of us or not.  They should have studied harder.  They should have paid attention as these ideas were skillfully presented in turn…  right?

So really…  when we wonder why the next course-level expectation or state-level curriculum objective doesn’t immediately resonate with glee…  take a step back.  Marching forward down the lineup of objectives does little for deep student learning if we are the ones doing the driving.  Instead, let your students take the wheel.  Step aside.  Plug in enough structure to encourage constructive discourse and let students learn.  Learn with them.  Seriously.  You already know it all?  Don’t assume anything.  Dive in yourself.  Learn with them.  Assess your learning every step of the way.  Ask questions.  Push students to ask even more.  Build schema to the point that you can all communicate as you move forward as learners.


*schema by jeloid (away) on Flickr
*Mason Jennings by whereisyourmind on Flickr
*pond shots…  me.

The End of The Line

According to NOAA, over half of the population of the United States lives within 50 miles of the coastline.  This trend holds up over the vast majority of the world, and many countries in East Asia show an even greater build up along coastlines.  Humans have, and continue to rely heavily on ocean resources for their livelihood.  The continued concentration of human life in these areas creates great stress on marine ecosystems.  This fact alone is enough to suggest imminent and increased stress on the natural workings of the world ocean.  However, what about the other ~50%?

If you live in, oh…  Saint Joseph, Missouri… what effect can you possibly have on ocean resources?  For folks who have lived out their lives from the center of a continent, issues such as this tend to pass by without even a glance.  And yet, certain actions we take on a regular basis directly affect marine ecosystems hundreds of miles away.

Middle Bight Sunset

No ocean in Missouri

As an educator who hails from dry land in relatively rocky Missouri…  I have long struggled to help these concepts move beyond the abstract and into the concrete lives of my students.  From the start, the Marine Biology program in my district was built around a rich field study set truly in the middle of nowhere on the Andros reef in the Bahamas…  aboard sailboats for a week in April.  If you haven’t seen them, sets from our most recent two field studies in 2009, and 2008 can be found on my Flickr page.  From the images alone, I think you’ll instantly see the educational value of this experience.

From the start, leaning my curriculum against such a rich experience has done wonders for establishing relevance in this course.  However, in my opinion, there is still value in being able to understand our effects on ocean resources…  even when were hundreds of miles from water.  Of course there are many ways in which we on dry land are still intimately tied to the ocean.  However, over the years it seems the direct connection from plate to mouth is the one that establishes a real connection with my students.

perfect UW photography posture

Challenge based learning

I’ve written before about projects concerning seafood resources.  Working up to last year, these challenges have moved from the classroom alone toward true social action.  It seems pretty easy for students to buy in to the idea that teaching not only helps one to learn something, but it can also affect change in the world.  Working up to last year’s challenge based on ocean resources, students were encouraged to take on their own project.  There were given the challenge of being creatively independent in reaching a wide audience of local folk with information related to smart uses of seafood resources.

While certain successes were had with this approach, a rather novel set of occurrences this year has pulled us back together as a whole class to take up this challenge in our community.

The End of The Line

The End of The Line

Imagine a world without fish” is the tag line that follows the title of this new full length film.  The End of The Line made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival in January.  The film had its North American premier on July 19, 2009, and continues to play in theaters, communities, and campuses across North America.  Screenings this month are scheduled in cities like Anchorage, Alaska and Kamuela, Hawaii.  The film shows most often on college campuses and at film festivals.  In Saint Joseph…  far from the sea…  it will play free to the public in the Benton High School auditorium.  Here’s betting that this public screening of the film will be the only one for hundreds of miles.

On October 26th, from 6 to 9pm, Benton High will be a hub of discussion about ocean resources, especially smart and sustainable attitudes toward our ocean.  Fr0m 6 to 7pm, a gallery walk will take place in the hallway leading to the theater.  Marine Biology students who have been studying these issues will present displays and talk with guests informally about topics that bring these issues directly to the “table level” in our own community.  Our guests will also leave with practical tools in hand to make smart decisions about seafood.  Pamphlets, pocket guides, bumper stickers will serve to remind well after the film ends.  The End of The Line has a runtime of 82 minutes and will begin at 7pm.  After the film, students will again be available to discuss individual topics in the galleryway until 9pm.  Concessions will be available.  Hey, its a movie.  Movies require popcorn, right?

The screening of the film is sponsored by the Saint Joseph Marine Institute (Marine Biology program) and the Saint Joseph School District.  Thanks to district officials who have long sponsored innovation in the classroom, this community event will be offered free of charge.  Thanks, Dr. Dial.  My students thank you, as will any members of our community who are touched by this experience.

To help spread the word about this free community event, feel free to download a copy of the full-size poster here and display in your school or place of business.