I vividly remember the first time I ever heard the word “constructivism”. I was sitting in a classroom on the east campus of the University of Nebraska during the Nebraska Math and Science Initiative with other teams of teachers from across the state. “You can’t learn something new unless you can explain it using something you already know.” Epiphany! How could I have gone through six years of college (that’s what happens when you change your major after your junior year) and 10 years of teaching without knowing or understanding that principle? Duh!
In other words, learning requires applying past knowledge. We cannot understand new learning without framing it within something we already know and are familiar with. In explaining how antibodies work to destroy disease, we use the simile “like a lock and key”. This simile illustrates how specific an antibody is to its antigen. You might not know the slightest thing about the antibody-antigen connection but you understand how a lock and key work, they have to match perfectly. Your past understanding of the lock and key help you begin to understand a new concept.
“It’s like riding a bike” is a familiar phrase for almost everyone. It means that once you’ve learned something, it’s hard to forget. Have you ever seen the video of the backward bicycle? This video demonstrates how absolutely ingrained some learning can become; to the point where it’s almost impossible to unlearn it. Do you remember your home phone number from when you were a kid? Mine was 335-2520. Past knowledge like that becomes ingrained because we use it repetitively.
Our challenge is to make classroom learning worthy of becoming past knowledge, so our students can apply it to new situations. “Lifeworthy” is the label David Perkins uses in his book “Future Wise” to describe the things in life that are worth knowing…because you’ll use them in the future! Not everything we learn is likely to fill that bill but just about anything you do learn has the possibility of helping you solve a problem at some point in your life.
Giving students life-worthy experiences helps them build or construct that knowledge base for later use. I just commented on a Facebook post from a kindergarten teacher who said she used lima beans to help her students learn about plant parts. I replied that I used the same activity with my junior students in Biology II! Of course, our goals were somewhat different but both of us were providing our kids with some knowledge that they could use at some point in the future.
As a science teacher, I found I often had to provide the experiences for students to accumulate knowledge. I then expected them to use that knowledge to answer questions on a chapter or semester test that were related to, but not the same as, what they had previously learned in class. I didn’t expect them to just memorize and regurgitate the information; I expected them to apply it while interpreting a graph or evaluating data from an experiment. The Next Generation Science Standards expect the same sort of accumulation of knowledge during a learner’s years of formal education. Lower levels of understanding in elementary school but increasing in complexity as they advance.
I remember asking some 7th grade students if they had studied the Periodic Table of the Elements. They assured me that they had but were surprised when they began learning that it was more than just a weird chart with some even weirder names. And when they moved on to eighth grade, my colleague next door picked up the lamp of learning and added even more experiential knowledge as they learned to balance chemical equations using information from that same Periodic Table. As they advanced, the chemistry teacher also increased their understanding in their junior chemistry class.
In doing a “why I teach” video one year, I said that my goal as a teacher was to make the invisible, visible. I wanted students to see things that they had never seen before but were right in front of them all along. That past knowledge gave them seeing eyes for the very first time! I believe that to be the job of any teacher.
Some get to teach the wonders of letters that are used to form words, words that form sentences, sentences that form paragraphs, and eventually paragraphs that form books. Others teach that numbers symbolize values and those values work together to convey meaning, just as words do. Every discipline depends upon some prior knowing that the learner can use to create new understandings and from those understandings, new meanings.
Applying Past Knowledge to New Situations is a habit of mind that is foundational to all our learning. Building this habit stretches our understanding, raises our standards, and prepares us to solve new problems. Deep, rich experiences help us construct what will become “past knowledge”, adding new tools to our toolboxes. The more we use those tools, the more we are able to recognize the “new situations” in which we can use them.
One of the most relevant quotes for our fast changing world may be this one:
“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”
– Alvin Toffler
Bob Feurer spent 37 years teaching 7-12 science and coaching three sports at North Bend Central P.S. in North Bend, NE. He retired from the classroom and has been elected to the local school board. He considers himself as a blue color habits of mind practitioner as he is self-taught after reading Habits of Mind Across the Curriculum and Learning and Leading with Habits of mind. He recently received his certification as a HOM professional developer. Feurer is a third-generation teacher and his daughter the fourth. He was the 2011 Nebraska Teacher of the Year.