November 29, 2017 by

Building Connections by Applying Past Knowledge to New Situations

This blog post is part of an ASCD partnership with Wonder Media. To see all blog posts from Wonder Media on the 16 Habits of Mind, you can click here. 

Anton Chekhov once said, “Knowledge is of no value unless you put it to practice.” A key Habit of Mind, one that is at play daily in every classroom, is “Applying Past Knowledge to New Situations”. This Habit of Mind, which encompasses the accessing of prior knowledge and the transfer of knowledge from one learning situation to another, is one of the many ways students develop into stronger learners and thinkers. This Habit of Mind can often happen without much notice or attention on the part of the learner; it is somewhat intuitive. However, by calling attention to this habit, by teaching it, reflecting on it, and highlighting it throughout the learning process, we, as teachers, can nurture and develop this habit in our students, helping them to become more effective thinkers and keen participants in their learning and growth.

Out with The Old, In with The New

K-W-L Chart

A common strategy for accessing prior knowledge is a K-W-L chart. This type of chart, organized by what students KNOW, WANT to know, and later LEARN about a topic or unit of study, can help students of any age level or through any content area increase their awareness of their own prior knowledge and experiences they have had with a certain topic. This process also pushes students to identify what else they want to learn or know, and then later, after targeted learning and work, communicate what new knowledge they have gained. As we work in our school to build a strong culture of thinking, however, we have found this K-W-L process to be somewhat limiting. We often refer to Ron Ritchart’s amazing work, “Making Thinking Visible” when trying to get our students to a certain level of thinking.

Think, Puzzle, Explore

This visible thinking routine is a similar, but distinctly different tool we routinely use to access prior knowledge and build an awareness of thinking and of knowledge transfer.

This routine for accessing prior knowledge asks students to reflect on three prompts:

  • What do you THINK you know about this topic?
  • What questions or PUZZLES do you have?
  • How can you EXPLORE this topic?

A notable difference between this questioning routine and a K-W-L chart, is that the Think, Puzzle, Explore routine prompts learners to reflect on what they THINK they know about a topic or idea. This subtle difference in questioning brings to light the idea is this: what we think we know at about a topic may or may not be accurate, but could be something we learn more about.

This can be a bit freeing for students as they access and build on prior knowledge since this question recognizes that it is okay not to be 100% correct in one’s thinking, but rather to consider what we think we may know, what questions or puzzles we may have, and then, how we can go about exploring and learning more about the topic we are studying.

In first grade, as we move into our study of Space, for example, it is an amazing way for us to access a student’s prior knowledge and really see where any misconceptions might be. In this case, we use this routine as an ongoing record of learning. We complete the “think” part at the beginning of the unit. Then dive into learning. After a week or two, we take it out again and ask students, “Is there anything that puzzles you about what we have learned so far?” Our hope is that after learning some of the content, students curiosity is peaked enough to reflect on their learning and raise some questions. We then move onto “explore” to guide instruction further.

Applying This Habit to Reading

Applying Past Knowledge to New Situations is essential when teaching reading. To model this habit consistently, teachers can use a set of strategies that help develop the following connections:

text to self,

text to text,

and text to world.

Text to self

These connections help students apply prior knowledge of their own life experiences and memories to the topic at hand. We can teach our students to make text to self connections when they read both fiction and nonfiction, learn new information, and even read the writings of their classmates.

Text to Text

Text to text connections are the comparisons students can make to other works of literature, informational articles, or other stories they have read or heard. These types of connections remind learners that they have encountered similar information that may help build on new understanding as they begin a learning task or unit.

Text to World

Finally, with a larger context in mind, we can ask students to make text to world connections through which they apply past knowledge to new learning situations. These types of connections require that students connect their knowledge of global problems, real-world events, or local community needs to a new topic or content study. Text to world connections are particularly powerful in helping students access their knowledge of the world around them and in understanding that their learning has real world purposes and results. Anchor charts come in handy when teaching children to ponder their connections.

Older students often include text to media connections when applying their past knowledge to new learning as they consider how new information or textual content is related to music, art, movies, games or television shows they have encountered.

We give each of our students “Reading is Thinking” books. These books are simply composition notebooks that they use as reading journals. These journals give students a place to record all of their connections to the stories they read throughout the year. As teachers, they give us a window into how well students are able to apply past knowledge in reading and where they may need help.

Habits of Mind Animations

For our youngest students, we can build an early understanding of the importance of Applying Past Knowledge to New Situations by sharing and discussing WonderGrove Learn Habits of Mind Animations. The age appropriate, relatable stories and characters in this video series help students understand how their behaviors as learners impact how much they grow, understand, and succeed. Extension activities provided through this animated series can also help bridge the learning from school to home and develop even deeper connections for students over time.

Nearly all teachers at times throughout a day, week, or unit will help students identify and access their prior knowledge. However, when deliberately planned, discussed, documented and shared, the process of applying past knowledge to new learning experiences can become a powerful and lifelong habit that will serve our students well in their future inquiries and explorations.

Drs. Bena Kallick and Art Costa say it best: “Intelligent humans learn from experience. They do not engage in ‘episodic grasps of reality’ nor treat each learning event as separate and discrete, with no connection to what has come before or what may come after”.


Laura Fitzpatrick has been an Early Childhood Educator in South Florida for 16 years. She is an avid blogger, presenter, and most recently, a published author of her first children’s book, “Words Glow…Minds Grow”, published through The Institute for The Habits of Mind. Laura is passionate about weaving the Habits of Mind into her classroom and into her curriculum. Follow her on Twitter: @Misfitz333 and https://wordsglowmindsgrow.wordpress.com

Kathleen Malanowski has been an elementary educator and school administrator for over 25 years. She is passionate about teaching and learning and loves being a Lower School Principal. Kathleen works with teachers and students to develop a school-wide culture centered around thinking and learning through a collaborative and supportive school environment.  Follow her on twitter at @NBPSLower.