What Exactly is “Prior Knowledge?”

by Jack Farrell

The latest research hones in like a laser-guided missile on the crucial subject of ‘prior knowledge’ and the critical role it plays in learning. Articles are popping up everywhere. But the surest test that it has captured the academic imagination is the prominent way it dominates the lay-out, both conceptually and aesthetically, of the latest textbooks. These tomes, already awash in color and graphical content, as well as textboxes often of discontinuous content, are now designed to pre-load essential information, such as challenging vocabulary definitions, literary terms and their explanations, motivational activity sets, and even essential plot-points. The theory is that a student cannot engage the text and learn from it unless he has the requisite prior knowledge. The practice is driven by the misguided conviction that students cannot learn anything unless they already know it.

Let’s begin an examination with a look at some of the latest research on this subject. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School, published in 1999 by The Research Council advances this view: “In the most general sense, the contemporary view of learning is that people construct new knowledge and understandings based on what they already know and believe (p. 10).” This is loosely termed a constructivist model of learning. In practice, however, great effort has been made, both by publishers and classroom practitioners, to link the new learning to the everyday world the student knows, believes in and has learned about. In my capacity as a consultant teacher, wherein I saw literally hundreds of hours of classroom instruction, this effort sometimes stretched the connection to the point of absurdity. Consider this prompt, as an anticipatory set for the play Hamlet: “Imagine that your uncle killed your father and married your mother. How would you feel? Write in your journal for 7 minutes.” The whackiness of this assignment is somehow justified by the notion that students cannot read Shakespeare unless they can imagine his plot points connecting to the world of their direct experience. Or how about integrated math instructors taking their classes outside to stare at the flag pole in front of the administration building on the assumption that the abstraction on the textbook page will never be real to these students unless it can be directly linked, and supposedly an outcome of, the real world in which they live? The actual concept at work here is the constructivist notion that learning takes place when abstract concepts can be built upon the world as experienced by the senses. This is such a narrow and short-sighted interpretation of the concept of ‘prior knowledge’ that all true learning will never intellectually advance much beyond the fourth grade unless it can be discredited and replaced by a more classical approach.

There are incipient signs that some have intuited the dead-end this educational approach must inevitably reach. In the February edition of the Phi Delta Kappan, Kieran Egan, Professor of Education at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., valiantly attempts to break the bonds by tentatively asserting that this approach is too restrictive. He writes:

“It is commonly argued that one of the securest findings of educational research is that new information, to be best understood, must be attached to knowledge the student already has. Formulations of this finding have been various, but it has been a staple of educational thinking from the time of John Dewey—and before him of Herbert Spencer—to the recently published National Research Council monograph How People Learn: Bridging Research and Practice.

“I wish to suggest that the common principle of ‘starting where the student is’ may be both inadequate and restrictive in ways not often discussed. In its place, I suggest we might sensibly adopt a second principle of ‘asking what the student can imagine.’ We can pose this question at any point in the learning process as a starting point for further inquiry.’ [p. 443]

Egan argues against this restrictive approach, using four main points:

1) If this is a fundamental principle of human learning, there is no way the process can begin.
2) If novelty is a problem for human learners, reducing the amount of the novelty doesn’t solve the problem. If we can manage some novelty, why can’t we manage more?
3) It is assumed that children’s thinking is simple, concrete and engaged with local experience. But children also have imaginations and emotions, and these two connect with the world.
4) Old fashioned intuition makes clear that no one’s understanding of the world expands according to this principle of gradual content association. [p. 444]

Professor Egan has correctly deduced that educators have used the theory of prior knowledge to create a highly limited box from which most practitioners are unable to escape. But his assertion that imagination should be added to the pedagogy, while bold and somewhat liberating, falls far short of the ultimate solution, which is the desperate search for a better definition of prior knowledge. So I will boldly offer one.

As students advance up the educational ladder, the learning becomes increasingly more abstract. The work in the classroom, from as early as the 3rd or 4th grade, has less and less to do with the world we live in and much more to do with constructing amazingly complex abstractions of it. Thus, today’s mental construct is built upon a previous mental construct that may be near or remote in time, but probably took place in a classroom, and it may have little or nothing to do with the sensory world outside that classroom. Often the ‘prior knowledge’ is simply prior experiences with the language. The gaps in student learning are often verbal and mental and not ‘real world,’ as in ‘he’s never played tennis, so how does he know what a tennis ball looks like or how it bounces.’ I know I am trivializing a revered concept from the ivory tower, but when I examine textbooks I often see the underlying pedagogy on nearly this absurd a level.

I am currently teaching two English classes on a block schedule at the high school level, having completed a three-year assignment as a full-time released teacher in my district working as a consultant to new teachers. Since my return, I have been avoiding the pre-loaded material the textbook offers. Instead, I offer the students the same, or similar, material as authentic text, which is black font on white paper. If you do not believe that this is authentic text, then I challenge you to take a walk through the stacks of any library and randomly pull down books. You would be hard-pressed to find any book that even faintly resembles a school textbook, unless you restricted your search to children’s literature. Real books are devoid of graphical content and explanatory side-bars. In authentic text, it is left to the writer to engage his reader and to access his prior knowledge. Too often in education, and in textbook publishing, we start from a deficit model, from a belief that the writer will surely fail in his task, thus the mandatory anticipatory, or motivational, set, which is the most common first step in lesson planning. Educators and publishers have devolved to such a low opinion of student resourcefulness, that difficult vocabulary is explained, as are literary terms, either by the teacher or the textbook publisher.

I am a proud proponent of what I call “Read First,” which calls on the student to engage text silently and independently before the teacher, the class, or the textbook publisher controls his thinking. Students are told that the first thing to do when the text is incomprehensible is to re-read it. The worst thing to do is to give up. Since the material is provided as black font on white paper, students are encouraged to mark up the text with highlighters, as well as pens or pencils, and to make marginal notes. In this context, prior knowledge may involve some or all of the following:

1. Some life experience, either vicarious or real, although this is, by no means a pre-requisite.
2. Previous works read in this or other classes.
3. Previous concepts (or abstractions) from this or other classes.
4. Previous experiences with the language, its syntax, its rhythms and its diction.
5. The first reading of the material.

Point #5 has been the most eye opening for me, as I have witnessed countless occasions where the success of the second reading is a direct result of the prior knowledge of the first reading. So much of what I see in current textbooks flows from the mistaken premise that students must have a successful first reading of any text or they will be lost for good. I hold the opposite view. Students lost in the text on a first reading may be frustrated, but they are also engaged and thinking. By the second reading, they are actively studying.

Let me illustrate with a specific example. One of the reading standards for 9th and 10th graders in California is 3.8: Interpret and evaluate the impact of ambiguities, subtleties, contradictions, ironies, and incongruities in a text. Simply the language of this standard lends credibility to the argument that prior knowledge is language-based rather than life-based. This standard specifically calls for students to engage challenging text. I would also hold that mastery of this standard can only be demonstrated by independent reading of new material. The writing standard linked to this reading standard is 2.2: Write responses to literature: a) demonstrate a comprehensive grasp of the significant ideas of literary works; b) support important ideas and viewpoints through accurate and detailed references to the text or to other works; c) demonstrate awareness of the author’s use of stylistic devices and an appreciation of the effects created; d) identify and assess the impact of perceived ambiguities, nuances, and complexities within the text. Again, to demonstrate mastery of this standard, a student would have to engage new text and develop interpretations supported in the text.

In working with these standards with students in the middle, that is readers between the 35th and 75th percentiles, I have witnessed a growing comfort with black font on white paper, a facility for working with text without an anticipatory set, an increased skill at marking up text as a way of entering it, and a pleasure at subsequently reading fiction and non-fiction books rendered authentically. Many of these students have come to realize that the imagery in their heads easily and satisfactorily replaces publisher’s graphical displays, that professional writers, when given the chance, can engage them (even if it requires multiple readings), that prior knowledge can be activated by these writers and that it emanates from multiple sources which cannot be accurately anticipated by either the writer or the publisher, and that when gaps occur, the students can develop their own strategies for filling them.

The role of the language arts teacher is often to bring writer and reader together and then step aside and let the magic happen. What is the harm in being amazed when this magic does not occur, rather than cynically supposing it will not and stepping in between writer and reader from the very beginning and short-circuiting any possible connection? I think we sadly underestimate most students when, in the name of prior knowledge, we front-load so much information. It demeans both writer and reader, it breeds a dependent and passive learner and it seriously limits the breath and depth of the learning if prior knowledge is married to a mandate to make all learning relevant to real word experience.


Bransford, John D., Brown, Ann L., and Cocking, Rodney R., eds., How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School, National Academy Press, Washington, D.C., 1999

“Start with What the Student Knows or with What the Student Can Imagine?” Phi Delta Kappan, p. 443-445, February, 2003, Kieran Egan, Professor of Education at Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, B.C.

© Jack Farrell, Conejo Valley Unified School District, 2004