How Pre-Existing Knowledge Affects Cognitive Connections

Homeschool parents are saddled with the often onerous task of teaching their children some difficult subjects, such as science. Understanding how your kids learn and make cognitive connections with a variety of subjects will make it easier to educate them in a way that helps them comprehend, extrapolate and retain knowledge.

A Deeper Understanding of Learning

Learning is an information obtaining process. All of us want to get more information and use it. We come to education with our own prior knowledge, skills, and beliefs that affect the way we learn. We all know different things and that affects how we learn and process the information presented to us.

When speaking about pre-existing knowledge, the book, How People Learn, states that “people construct new knowledge and understanding based on what they already know and believe.” As we teach, it is important to realize what our students already know, where they have gaps, and tailor our teaching from there. If we ignore our students’ initial beliefs and ideas, they may come away with understanding that is very far from what we intended.

Learning is a process of transfer. We start with our previous experiences and build from there. When we first learn something, we still use our previous experiences as a filter for the new knowledge. Students do not always make the proper connections with prior experience and new knowledge. As teachers, we need to be aware of where our students are coming from and build bridges to the new information we are trying to teach.

As an example of how our pre-existing knowledge affects our understanding of new information, we can look at Leo Lionni’s book Fish is Fish. This story is about a fish who lives in water but wants to know what it is like to live on land. He asks a tadpole friend to let him know what he finds out when he leaves the water to live on the land. The now frog friend comes back and shares what he found, describing the things he saw – cows, people, birds. In the fish’s mind, each one is a variation of a fish. That is all he knows and he does not make connections beyond what he has seen personally.

From this example, it is easy to see that the fish did not have the pre-existing knowledge necessary to create in his mind a true picture of a cow, a bird, or a human. Students are the same. Their prior knowledge is going to affect the way they understand new information and apply it in various situations.

Making Correct Connections

As we understand the pre-existing knowledge inside our students, we can develop lessons that allow them to explore new ideas. It is important that we do not just tell students information. We need to allow them to do inquiry-based investigations of information so they can obtain a deeper and more correct understanding of what they are learning.

In science, for example, this means getting beyond telling students what happens and, instead, letting them discover for themselves the scientific concepts being explored. Various studies have shown that using an inquiry-based learning model helps even young students to understand difficult concepts. We design these lessons so that as they explore, their pre-existing knowledge is connected to the new discoveries and then becomes an understanding of the concept we are teaching.

Homeschool parents need to listen to their students as they teach. In this way it is possible to discover where their thinking is now and then you can build lessons that take them to where you want them to be in the future.