- What do you Know?
- What do you Want to know?
- What did you Learn?
Unfortunately so have the kids, and the sight of a KWL chart just makes them groan. So as teachers we have to be sneaky sometimes to figure out what those kids already know. Why bother you might ask? I know sometimes it seems like those little angels come into our rooms as blank slates, but that is far from true. They have been in many classrooms sitting in front of many teachers long before they came in to our classrooms. Plus everything they learn form each other, television, and those smart phones growing out of their arms.
I digress, back to the importance of prior knowledge. If we can connect what we are teaching to something that they already know then they understand it better and retain it longer. As if the brain is a giant spider web of knowledge. If you don't find something to stick it to, then it just escapes. It can be tough finding that prior knowledge. At the first whiff of new material some students will fake ignorance to avoid being called on. But if they are confident that they already know something about the topic, then they are excited to expand that knowledge.
Questioning helps. My general rule of thumb is that I need to be asking the students just as many questions as they are asking me. For example at the beginning of the school year we study physical geography. Before we even start I tell the kids, "Okay, you guys are going to ace this next unit because you already know all of this stuff. Physical geography is just like the physical science you learned last year. Let's see, do you remember what the different layers of the earth are? Oh, that was easy, what about the movement of the plates? What are the different types? Show me with your hands. What does that movement create?" and so on and so on. They get so excited telling me what they know.
Another way to find out what they know is to hand them the dry erase marker or chalk. You will always have shy kids, but if you make everyone take a turn it eases the embarrassment. Just put a starter topic up and have the kids web everything they know for you. Teach high school and don't have enough board room for six classes? Just snap a picture with a digital camera and erase the board. Remember, while they might act like it sometimes, they weren't really born yesterday. So, be creative, be sneaky, but do whatever you need to do to find out what they already know. You will see improvement in your retention rate.