Building Background Knowledge Prior to Student-led Inquiries

I recently had the opportunity to hear Garfield Gini-Newman speak to the staff at Whitehorn Public School (PDSB).  Garfield is a senior national consultant with the Critical Thinking Consortium.  Please click on the link below to learn more about this consortium.  There are also some excellent resources you can download for free!

We began by discussing the four variables that impact educational initiatives.  Garfield highlighted that, in order to teach for deep understanding, we needed to ponder what we thought we were doing well and where we thought that we could improve. 

The four variables:

  • Create a Thinking Environment
  • Provide Opportunities for Deep Understanding
  • Build Capacity for Thinking
  • Provide Guidance for Thinking

We had a lot of discussion around the fourth variable and what we meant by the term “guidance”.  We came to a shared understanding that this term encompassed more than “feedback”; as teachers we need to look beyond the descriptive feedback we provide to students, and make sure that we are truly “guiding” students to ensure they continue to improve, meet goals, and reach high levels of achievement.     

Then we moved into looking at some of John Hattie’s research.  For me,  this is where it really got interesting!  Hattie’s research shows that the effectiveness of inquiry-based teaching increases when teachers teach content so that students have some background knowledge about their topic of inquiry. 

You may be thinking, “How do we begin teaching students background knowledge on the content in the curriculum?”  For years I’ve been discussing with teachers how to best do this.  We know that all students bring with them some background knowledge, but what happens when that knowledge does not align with the content in the curriculum?  I think…you need to teach it!  However, rote learning isn’t what this is all about; you need to provide opportunities for students to make opinions and think critically!

Garfield showed us an example of a lesson that he had done in a Grade 4 class.  I’ve minimally adapted the ideas in the lesson and created a Flowboard.  Flowboard is a free app and a website that allows you to create vivid presentations.  You can access the Flowboard by clicking on the link below. (The link does not open in the web browser Internet Explorer)

Begin by telling students that we are going to be travelling through time!   You can click on the watch tab to incorporate some “back to the future” music.

  1. Pose the following question to students, “How similar or different was life in Medieval Europe to life today?” Make a “dial” like the one that Garfield describes and revisit it often to adjust your opinion as students think critically throughout their inquiry. 
  2. Display the “future” picture (it would be great if you have a Smart Board and could annotate right on it), and as a whole class compare the similarities and differences.
  3. Provide students with facts and have them discuss if they think each fact is “Trivial” or “Important”.
  4. Use pictures to build background knowledge.  As a whole class, discuss what they see and talk about the similarities and differences between life then and life today.        
  5. Don’t forget to revisit the “dial” often as students build on their understanding of the content being learned.

Hattie’s research reinforces the need to create opportunities for students to create background knowledge by thinking critically, prior to jumping right into an inquiry rooted in the Ontario curriculum. 

Happy Knowledge Building!

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One Response to Building Background Knowledge Prior to Student-led Inquiries

  1. Thanks for this post! This reminds me of something I recently read in “The Inspired Teacher” by Carol Frederick Steele. She discusses the need to provide students with background knowledge and assess what students already know in order to provide them with an overall context to build on. This skill is particularly difficult for novice teachers to master. This very meta process, which is essentially thinking about thinking, could go a long way in helping teachers get their students in the right mindset before tackling a topic in greater depth. Thanks again for sharing.

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