Part 2. Build knowledge

This is the second part of a three-post series on how the Science of Learning can be used to inform your practice as a teacher or a learner. If you’ve missed the first blog post about ENGAGE, click here and check it out before you read this. Also, sign up for my Nat Geo Learning webinar here.

Remember that cycle I showed you on my last post? It was based on the material I received in my Cognitive Neuroscience and Classroom Practice class and meant for you to think about the general three steps that make learning more likely to happen. The reason why the arrows are dual is simple: every step of the way feeds off of each other and contributes to each other. But if you were engaged while reading the other blog post and looking at the image below, I believe it’s safe to assume that ENGAGE is the first step of our sequence. Think of it this way: before we can start building a house, we need to get the workers to be able and willing to do it, right?


Now allow me to use some of the strategies I want you to try out on your own students in your own classes. That’s why the analogy of construction serves us well. Picture a group of people building a school. You’ve already gotten their attention, they know what they’re supposed to do, they’re paid, rested and well-fed. Time to start working. All the materials they need are right in front of them. They have their safety gear, yellow helmets on, gloves, boots, the works! Let’s get down to it then. First things first. But, what is the very first thing to do again? Maybe I should give you some specifics before.

The school will be a 4-floor building. It’ll have a sports center, a cafeteria, a playground, a computer lab, a library, offices for the director and coordinators, a teachers room, a storage room, a kitchen, bathrooms. Erm, am I forgetting anything? Oh yeah, and classrooms! Many of them. A parking lot as well. I suppose you get the picture. Where should the construction start? What needs to be built first? Give yourself a couple of seconds and try to answer that.

If you chose any of the places I mentioned before, you skipped a fundamental part of the building process. You can’t start building anything if you don’t have a FOUNDATION. And you can’t build from the roof down either. These two seemingly obvious remarks bring us to two not always obvious concepts that need to be well developed in the classroom: PRIOR KNOWLEDGE and SCAFFOLDING.  The first assumes that for a new knowledge to be learned, it must be built on a foundation. Piaget called it schema in 1926. If you teach math, you know students who don’t know multiplication can’t begin to learn how to calculate percentages. You see, first, you need to learn multiples, then division, finally percentages. SCAFFOLDING, Vygotsky’s contribution to education, on the other hand, means gradually increasing knowledge by using the “platforms” to build up. These platforms are often provided by us, the teachers. We set them up so that the students can gradually climb them and achieve their potential.

Both PRIOR KNOWLEDGE and SCAFFOLDING are essential to make sure learning is happening in a more effective way. But there’s something else we need to keep in mind. Imagine our workers have built the foundation, started working their way up on the main school building and are finally moving on to the very last floor. You can see them going up, climbing the scaffolds to reach the top floor, carrying the main piece of material they need: bricks. The thing is, how many bricks can they carry? All at once, maybe? Should they carry bricks, plaster for the wall, glass for the windows, paint and the like on just one go? They can’t, can they? Too heavy and too much stuff at once. For the process to be effective, they need to carry only what they’ll need up there with them depending on the stage of the construction. The same happens to our students when they try to put too many things in their working memory. It’s like a bucket or a bag. The more bricks you put in it, the heavier it gets and the more complicated it is to get it to the top. To avoid this MEMORY OVERLOAD, we need to make sure we keep the unnecessary stuff (irrelevant information, distractions) at a minimum and give clear instructions, just what they need.

See what I did? I used an analogy to try and tackle all of those items. I gave the example of a construction because I’m pretty sure you’ve seen a construction site before. That means I was activating your PRIOR KNOWLEDGE. After setting the foundation for this new knowledge, I tried to explain things step-by-step, provide lots of mental images and ask questions to make sure SCAFFOLDING was happening. By eliminating wordy explanations, too many definitions, and using a familiar situation (construction), I’ve also taken some of the MEMORY LOAD off your mind. At least that’s what I hope. Now if I were teaching you this in a lecture, workshop or class, I’d be doing something else that definitely helps. I’d be gesticulating, using my arms, hands, and whole body, to be honest, especially when using the words FOUNDATION (hands waving low near the ground) or SCAFFOLDING (hands going up one on top of the other), etc. This would tap into everyone’s MIRROR NEURONS SYSTEM. You see, when we watch someone doing something, the neurons that would activate if we were doing that something actually do activate just by watching. It helps us learn through observation.

Isn’t our brain incredible? I think it’s fascinating.

Your sense of curiosity may have you thinking right now: what exactly is PRIOR KNOWLEDGE or SCHEMA, or what does SCAFFOLDING really mean? Maybe you’re thinking about how our WORKING MEMORY actually works or what the heck the MIRROR NEURONS do. I promise I’ll write a blog post with all these definitions very soon. You can also do a little research about them, but, for now, I hope this suffices:

SCAFFOLDING = Platform, support
WORKING MEMORY = Bucket/ bag of bricks
MIRROR NEURONS = Observe others building and imitate them (even if just in your head)

All of those are nothing but steps to building a school or, in our case, knowledge. If we overlook any of those steps, we may never actually build anything or just build it on top of very weak foundations and doom the whole thing to collapse. To help you build knowledge with your students (or yourself) more effectively, think about the questions below:

1- Do all my students know what is necessary before I teach this? Do they have a foundation for this new knowledge? (PRIOR KNOWLEDGE)
2 – If they do, did I make sure I ACTIVATED their PRIOR KNOWLEDGE? Did I set the scenario, ask questions, made sure they were thinking about it? (PRIOR KNOWLEDGE)
3 – Did I provide enough support (schemes, vocabulary, tables, images) so that they could use it as PLATFORMS to climb? (SCAFFOLDING)
4 – Did I give them just the information they needed, breaking things down into bits, so that they could avoid too much information? Did I give them time and the tools to process that information? Did I use analogies to simplify this information?(WORKING MEMORY)
5 – Did I make gestures when I explained the concepts? Did I use my body to convey my message? (MIRROR NEURONS)

If you reflect on these questions and think of ways you can implement that in your class, I’m sure you’ll be helping a lot of students. Going back to our math example, what do you think works best:

1. Teacher enters the classroom and says they’re gonna work with percentages that day. The first thing the teacher does is write on the board “50%” and say:” this symbol means that 50 is being divided by 100. That means that it’s…” Someone shouts: “0.5”. The teacher says: “Well done”. Then the teacher writes new examples on the board: 30%, 40%, 90%. The same student shouts again: “0.3”. Another student, very clever, notices the process and says: “0.4”. The teacher is happy and says: “Well done, everyone! Now let’s do the activities on page 10”. Most students can do it. A few days after, the teacher applies a test and more than half of the class passes. A job well done, she thinks. But have they really learned what percentages mean and how they work? Another test, this one with problems such as: “3 girls in every 4” or “2 out of 6 men”. Most of them fail.
2. Teacher enters the classroom and says the same thing and writes “50%” on the board. She asks if anyone knows what that is. Nobody answers. She then says that it means that 50 is being divided by 100. She asks everyone to try to make that division in their notebooks. She sees that some students are struggling. She approaches them and sees their problem is that they don’t remember how to divide. She implies that their real problem is with multiplication. She helps them through the problem and asks for volunteers to make divisions on the board. Everyone watches and try themselves in their notebooks. She says: “Here’s a good explanation on how we can multiply and divide”. She assigns that as homework and welcomes everyone to do it, but it’s actually optional. They do it, she checks, some students are still struggling. She decides to use more practical examples. She uses a paper circle as a pie chart and asks students to use a ruler and draw a line cutting it in half vertically and horizontally. They repeat the process and end up having 8 slices. She asks them to cut up the slices and demonstrates that if they remove 4 slices out of the pie chart, they’ll have 4 slices left and that is 4 divided by 8 which equals 50%.

See the difference? In which situation do you think the students were learning better? If she applied a test in situation 2, would you say students would have a better chance at scoring a higher grade? This is actually a simple example. Can you think of an example when you made assumptions and leaps that led to a lack of understanding? Can you maybe fix them now with what we’ve built together? I’d love to know. Leave a comment here.

The only problem is that building a school is much more than just building a school. It keeps changing and we need to add and remove things all the time. Sometimes it just needs some painting or renovation. Sometimes it needs to be demolished because the foundation is weak and we need to rebuild it. Keep that in mind and happy teaching!

Don’t forget to check out my lesson plan here and the Science of Learning – Engage, Build, Consolidate website

1 thought on “Part 2. Build knowledge”

  1. Pingback: Part 3. Consolidation – André Hedlund

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