Step 1: Prior knowledge

A quick recap

We’ve sifted through lots of robust evidence to bring you what’s on this website. We’ve used three sources for classroom evidence, and two from the cognitive sciences, plus general findings from neuroscience. We then used the Learning Cycle diagram to give all of this evidence some structure, bringing us our Six Steps for Outstanding Learning.

A table showing our Six Steps for Outstanding Learning, which are: Step 0 Orientate, Step 1 Prior Knowledge, Step 2 Presenting, Step 3 Challenge, Step 4 Feedback, Step 5 Repetition

So now we’re at Step 1: Prior Knowledge. Step 1 is about connecting with what our students already know about a topic before we start teaching new material.

Learning consists of links between neurons in the brain – when we’ve learnt something, there is a network of connections in the brain.

The Learning Cycle diagram is a great visual to help us to see how the learning process works. On the diagram you can see black connections and red connections.

  • The black connections on the left. These represent existing knowledge on the subject, which could be your student’s existing knowledge, or your knowledge as a teacher, depending on who we’re talking about.
  • The red connections represent the new learning we’re trying to teach a student. Not only do we have to create the connections between the new knowledge, we need to link the new knowledge to the existing knowledge.

This is the difference between learning by heart and understanding: if those green lines aren’t there, then you might have remembered it, but you won’t properly know it.

Our version of Geoff Petty's Learning Cycle diagram

We can illustrate the difference as follows. If you remember a song and somebody says to you “What’s the word one from the end on the third line of the song?” you have to sing through until you get to it. But, if you’re a biologist and somebody says “Can you tell me the two compounds which combine in photosynthesis?” you don’t have to sing the whole book through – you know the answer. That’s the difference between learning by heart and understanding.

New learning needs to be connected to what you already know.

Many of the problems we see in education, such as maths skills at secondary school or functional skills in Further Education (FE) result from lack of prior knowledge.

For instance, in Further Education, students struggle because of unhelpful things that are done in secondary schools. Some students are just shunted to the next lesson, whether they have understood the material or not. Consequently, patching up prior knowledge is particularly effective for low-ability, apparent low-ability, or low-achievement. Without the prior knowledge, the new learning can’t be understood; it can only be vaguely remembered.

So that’s the first stage of learning: checking and doing stuff about prior knowledge. Then we can use other effective methods, such as using analogies, to link the new learning to things which are already known.

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 accordingly.

David Ausubel

David Ausubel was a psychologist who contributed to educational psychology and cognitive science. He is best known for his work on the importance of prior knowledge and his research into Advance Organisers.

Want to read more?

There’s a great video on that gives an introduction to the ideas we’ve talked about here. Click here to check it out.

Writers such as Daniel Willingham and Daisy Christodoulou emphasise the importance of good factual knowledge in helping new learning. Willingham quotes experiments which show that the ‘rich get richer’ in learning a subject (whether history or car mechanics). This is because students with lots of existing knowledge in the subject learn new knowledge faster than those with less general knowledge in the subject.

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