How we observe and interact with our environment varies greatly from one person to the next, and the implications for learning are huge.
One individual may view a spider’s web with horror while another sees beauty in its elaborate structure. One sees a day on the ocean as an opportunity for rest and relaxation while another shutters at the queezie thought of sea sickness. One person salivates at the idea of liver and onions (okay, maybe not), while another loses their appetite. When you get right down to it, our past experiences have a tremendous and nearly unyielding impact on how we see and respond to things, particularly when it comes to school and learning.
Background knowledge, prior learning, and schema are what help shape a student’s readiness to learn, and if you think all children start on an equal footing, visit a kindergarten class sometime in the early fall and observe the diversity. Some children arrive at school knowing how to read and write their names while others don’t know the letters of the alphabet. Some kids have enjoyed trips with family members to museums, plays, professional sports games, and botanical gardens, while others haven’t been beyond the confines of their town lines. The disparities in readiness can be extreme, leading to experiential deficits for some young learners that will take two or three years of intense interventions to get them on grade level. And if we don’t remediate the deficits while the children are young, we risk a potentially angry, self-conscious, learner-helpless student in the future.
Last week in my curriculum and pedagogy class, we did a lesson on decoding. As a hook, I opened with a black and white video of Captain Midnight’s Secret Decoder Ring sponsored by Ovaltine. To demonstrate the power of past experiences and background knowledge, I asked students to view the picture shown above (the infant weight lifter) and come up with six to eight words describing the picture. Students were then directed to list the words in columns on the board, and then report out. What diversity! You’d have thought the students were looking at different pictures! The best part was when I had each student go to a different student’s word list and come up with one or two words that captured the essence of the list (See below).
What this lesson demonstrated was how diverse our perspectives are thanks to varied experiences that have shaped our brains. Susan Kovalik has written, “Intelligence is a measure of experience,” and so it goes in the world of education. It is our job to determine what our students know and do not know. It is our job to learn of students’ interests and fears, and it is our job to plan accordingly. There’s a good reason Danielson’s first domain is Planning and Preparation, and the first New York Teaching Standard is Knowledge of Students and Learning. People do better when they know better. When an educator knows his or her students’ prior knowledge, past experiences, and schema, and when that educator plans accordingly, well, great things happen in the classroom.