How do teachers use students’ prior knowledge in whole-class teaching?

Schoolchildren and teacher in science classBecause research indicates that prior knowledge can inhibit learning unless it is acknowledged and integrated with new learning, national educational initiatives in Britain emphasize the need for children to construct meaning through class discussions. The teacher is viewed as “an expert guide who offers both challenge and support to learners and assists in the process of constructing new meaning and knowledge.” The teacher is supposed to do this “not simply by providing new information, but by taking account of the links between prior knowledge and new learning.”

In a recent study, British researchers investigated how teachers conceptualize prior knowledge and how they make connections between new learning and prior learning in whole-class teaching, and how those connections support or confound children’s acquisition of new knowledge and understanding.

Little scaffolding from prior knowledge

This study reveals the limited opportunities created in whole-class discussion for the identification, sharing and active use of prior knowledge. Only 3 percent of statements and 11 percent of questions used prior knowledge in the classrooms under study. Although all the teachers in the study planned their teaching to address conceptual understanding and knew what they hoped children would achieve at the end of each lesson, there was almost no evidence that teachers recognized the impact of prior learning on cognitive and conceptual development. When prior knowledge was discussed, it pertained only to what had been taught in previous lessons. Teachers did not attempt to bring to light any ideas students may have acquired outside their classrooms.

In addition, interviews with children revealed that they were not learning what their teachers thought they were learning. Researchers report that while these teachers were encouraged to use interactive teaching methods in whole-class discussions, they also were pressed to ensure that they covered all curriculum objectives. These researchers believe that the pace and curriculum coverage advocated in curricular initiatives led teachers to do most of the talking in whole-class discussions rather than to encourage interaction that would reveal prior knowledge and any misconceptions about the lesson.
These results suggest teachers need to take more account of how prior knowledge relates to student learning, and not to limit it to what was covered in prior lessons. Teachers in this study showed a purposeful and structured approach to learning founded upon a concern for individual needs. However, their lack of attention to what students already know resulted in multiple understandings and misunderstandings of the same lesson.


“Making Connections: Teachers’ Use of Children’s Prior Knowledge in Whole Class Discourse,” British Journal of Educational Studies, Volume 52, Number 3, September 2004, pp. 263-275..

Published in ERN November/December 2004 Volume 17 Number 8

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)