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.

Sean Nash

Biology teacher in the great state of Kansas. Back at it in the classroom after a 30-year career in Missouri. Former District Curriculum Administrator, Instructional Technology Coordinator, and Instructional Coach. Biology instructor since 1993. Find more about my passions and my work at


  1. Interesting post. I offer some possible additions for what they’re worth.

    I think it was Bartlett who introduced schema in its modern usage into psychology (as a mental structure respresenting some aspect of the world). The term was coined earlier (really, it goes at least back to Kant), but used in a more limited sense. Piaget for example used it in a more restricted sense.

    Bartlett’s work was introduced in the U.S. by Neisser’s milestone text on Cog Psych. Anderson’s contribution was to demonstrate the potential of the concept for education in particular.

    The concept of schemata in their various forms is central to information processing theories of mind, so there is a lot of literature about it from various angles. Commonly used ideas like stereotypes, roles, worldviews, and so on are all examples of schemata. It has turned out to be a very useful experimental construct for understanding aspects of memory and cognition.

    There’s a nice essay about schema theory and its relationship to learning at:

    • I appreciate the hypodermic of cognitive psychology you injected here. I now have another article sitting patiently in a browser tab awaiting a read. Thanks for bring that into the fold here. Always appreciated.


      • Thanks Sean. Thinking about this a little more, I should clarify that I’m not (just) trying to demonstrate my obsessive pendantry here, I think the background of this concept and its specific uses in research is important because it is by no means universally agreed that the mind is even representational in the sense required by this idea.

        As straightforward as it seems to some of us, others often object to the assumption of mind as information processor. Objections come from two sides: (1) neural network theorists who envision information processing as a kind of illusion we project onto something vastly more complex, and (2) people who just find the mind too mysterious to be captured by computation or algorithm for some other reason.

        The fact that we can construct practical experimental conditions that exercise the concept of a schema in various ways goes a long way I think to showing why we bother to retain the concept and try to apply it in education and social psychology research.

        • Todd,

          Personally, I didn’t see it as obsessive. I’m glad someone continues to tap on me with those ideas. There was a time when I was digging into brain research more than anything in a quest to work smarter as an educator. However, I found that after pounding that one for a while, even the most enlightened instructional pros around me (HS level) failed to reflect any of that interest back at me.

          There aren’t really too many folks in this business that are interested in digging down beyond the “organismal” level into the smaller bits of biology. Though I continue to look at neuroscience for occasional inspiration… it seems that I always come back to a more holistic approach to the humans in my care. 😉

          Regardless of the level of magnification on this one, it is more than interesting that we continue to observe/produce examples of this as a working construct at this level.

          Beautiful stuff really.

  2. Thank you for the post. I enjoyed reading and it made me think more about a topic that I feel is rather important and often undervalued. I had a chance to listen to neuroscientist Kenneth Wesson last winter. In his keynote, he explained the physiological aspects of prior knowledge. The more connections we can make to what we already know (directly related to content or otherwise), the more elaborate neural pathways are created in our brains. This results in more effective understanding and retention. Do you have additional ways to activate prior knowledge that you find effective?

    • Oh boy do I. Perhaps I’ll lay out a few more here in detail in the future if you think that would be valuable. Send me a DM with your email and I’ll send you some things from my desktop a bit faster.

      The only thing about sharing favorite “tips” via Twitter or blog comments is… without all of the rich context/setups… a rich strategy can be lost in translation. In my daily job, the best way to share the really good stuff is via live modeling in classrooms with real kids/real contexts.

      Next best thing… file exchange + Skype? If you’re game, I am.

  3. “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 thankful for a network of people who just give us a gentle nudge and reminder from time to time. We’ve just been talking about the relentless passage of time as we plough through our course. Now, I will fight more to create time to allow my students to learn from their individual positions.

    And yes, it is great to be able to learn with them and I’m glad that we teach in a subject where we still don’t have all the answers. Makes it more interesting, don’t you think?

    • Absolutely. It is refreshing to teach a subject where the quest to make sense out of the complexity and beauty of nature is the central goal. (or at least it should be- in my opinion)

      However, I’m thinking that perhaps it’s just a wee bit more accepted for us to demonstrate that in our world? I don’t know. However, here’s me betting that I’d strongly convey a passion for inquiry no matter what flavor of classroom you were drop me into.

      Aggressively plowing a field does nothing but encourage weeds without all of the other requisite care, right?

  4. Sean,

    It is so great that you caught on to the gap in your students’ knowledge before your field study. They definitely learned infinitely more by going to the pond with some prior knowledge.

    I often think about how important prior knowledge is for academic success. The kids that I teach have little to none on many basic topics and concepts. For this reason their reading comprehension can be quite atrocious. For example, a 1st grader in my lab was making words by looking at a picture and filling in the missing letter. The example was ‘_og’ and the picture was of two logs. I asked him what was in the picture. He didn’t know. That simple gap in knowledge kept him from being able to complete the activity.

    I like your analogies in the beginning, too. I definitely take it for granted that I know how to fill in my own knowledge gaps myself as an adult!

    • Being that much closer to the “zero point” (birth) as you are with your students… gaps in background knowledge must loom even larger.

      Wait- I don’t know. Misconceptions acquired early might just be that much more entrenched with time.

      I wonder which is the stronger negative.
      Thanks for making me think…

  5. Great post as usual Sean. Just a few things to add here. First, Dick Anderson was my adviser when I was a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, so your note about his work brought back lots of great memories. Dick is still extremely active as a researcher though he has moved on from the schema related work (more into language learning, I think).

    More pertinent to your post is the idea of priming. I see a very important part of learning is being primed to learn. It is only when we have cognitive structures that are ready to take in new information that learning can truly happen.

    David Ausubel once said that “If I had to reduce all of educational psychology to just one principle, I would say this: The most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows. Ascertain this and teach him (sic) accordingly.”

    What you are doing, through priming, or developing these schemas is structuring (or pre-structuring) and hence revealing what the student already knows. Now (and only now) are they ready to learn.

    Your post hit home for another reason. My son is now studying the Pythagorean theorem, yet the teacher has not “primed” these ideas in any way whatsoever. So the new knowledge has nothing to “latch on to.” I recently discovered this website and found a great article on the Pythagorean theorem ( and got my son to read it. We ended up having a great discussion. Followed it up with one of these proofs ( and hopefully things start making sense to him. But again this is a process – and I wish the teacher would be doing some of this.

    It is simple ideas like this that help students make sense of where new ideas fit within a bigger context.

    Gotta go now but good to see what you are up to.

    • So Anderson was your adviser in grad school? Prepare for cliche’…. but wow. Small world at times, huh?

      I love the term “priming.” This is certainly a word that will fit in well to help explain things from time to time. So thanks for that. However, from where I sit, that one word and the associated idea of “being primed to learn” might even paint with too broad strokes for many. I think that perhaps a very important distinction to be made, especially for early service teachers, is the difference between accessing and building with regard to schema.

      I’ve seen many teachers aware of the concept, jump directly to providing chunks of fact… direct input even… that will be needed for the “deeper concept” to come. That approach is nothing more than age-worn direct mass-instruction with the name “schema” somewhere in the back of your head.

      I think “priming” must be split into two smaller components: first a very purposeful strategy for accessing a student’s prior knowledge… and then an equally-purposeful attention to building background knowledge. Once students have made some rudimentary connections of this new thing to -something- in their current experience, only then can they take a look around at their peers to see their connections to the new stuff and thus build onto their own framework.

      Of course, in my opinion, those two subphases of “priming” happen best without teacher input. At that early juncture, it is best that a skilled teacher plays observant coach and allows as much of this type of preparation to happen organically. That said, the instructor’s skillful role here is in designing a structure that allows this type of reflection and cooperation to take place. Without a structured system in place to allow this type of learning… you can’t really get that “unstructured” feel to the event without creating a big mess where little rich learning takes place.

      I’ll have to do a considerable amount of thinking/observing/measuring on this one. The microstructures of “priming?” Hmmm…

      Thanks as well for the links. I think your direct experience with this math lesson is unfortunately more common in American education than one might wish. Again, on this too I could be dead-wrong, but when I see this is it often the result of one of two things:

      1) …lack of time spent in preparing the learning event. Spend too much time grading 100 copies of problems #1-30 on pg. 223 and you’ll find far less time to be innovative with your approach on the front end for sure.


      2) …lack of strong big picture knowledge in the “C” circle of the TPACK framework. It’s tough to mention that one. I think it is the one folks take personally the most. But I would argue that being too short-sighted to see how the elements of your content connect in wider ways to the whole of human knowledge is a deficiency in the world of education.

      Cheers to at-home augmentation of the educational experience!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *