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Teaching Opinion

‘Teaching That Activates and Leverages Background Knowledge Is an Equity Issue’

By Larry Ferlazzo — June 16, 2020 14 min read
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(This is the final post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are the best ways to activate and build students’ background knowledge, and why is it important?

In Part One, Adam Fachler, Jeffrey Wilhelm, Rachel Bear, Cheryl Abla, Elizabeth Villanueva, Jenny Vo, and Sarah Said share their commentaries. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Jeffrey, Rachel, Cheryl, and Elizabeth on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today, Adeyemi Stembridge, Ph.D., Nancy Boyles, Ed.D., Barbara Blackburn, and Dave Stuart Jr. contribute their thoughts.

Leveraging background knowledge “is an equity issue”

Adeyemi Stembridge, Ph.D., provides technical assistance for school improvement with a specific focus on equity. He works with districts around the country to identify root causes of achievement gaps and formulate pedagogy- and policy-based efforts to redress the underperformance of vulnerable student populations. Follow him on Twitter at @DrYemiS:

Teaching in ways that activate and build background knowledge isn’t some feel-good teacher hack or even merely a promising practice. Teaching that activates and leverages background knowledge is an equity issue because when students have the opportunities to draw on the whole of their schema, they are better able to “chunk” the information they are encountering in order to construct enduring understandings and better retain the details of what they have learned. This is absolutely an equity issue because some students have background knowledge that is more valued than others by schools and thus more likely to be leveraged in their learning. The question then becomes, How? How do we activate the background knowledge of our students more equitably so that all students have fairer opportunities to learn?

The cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter is known for saying that “analogy is the engine of thinking,” and thus I counsel teachers to design learning experiences that allow students to employ conceptual analogous structures that resonate for them. This is easier to do often at the broadest conceptual levels of understanding; but once students are able to think in terms of “this is like” or “this makes me think of,” they will be much more inclined to show greater determination in their attempts to understand.

In Hofstadter’s work, he uses the example of a chess player to explain the power of analogy. Experienced chess players are better than beginners because they have amassed a specific type of understanding about a range of scenarios on the chess board that allow them to organize information about any particular game into higher-level structures. They are essentially comparing every chess match with the chess matches they’ve seen before. Experienced chess players “chunk” the arrangement of pieces seemingly intuitively “into small dynamic groupings defined by their strategic meanings,” and thus, they can make good moves nearly instantaneously and also remember complex chess situations for very long times (Hofstadter, 2001).

Novice chess players are to the game what our students are to the complex concepts we want them to understand. To support our students in developing sophisticated understandings, we must give them the opportunities to find the framing that connects with their background knowledge. To effectively chunk sophisticated concepts, our instruction must provide meaningful opportunities for them to activate a nexus of prior knowledge. All students bring background knowledge with them to their learning experiences—the older they are, the larger their chunks of knowledge in size and number, thus allowing them to perceive, retain, and recall increasingly complex understandings in greater and greater detail.

The challenge of activating students’ background knowledge is that it is impossible to know all of what’s included in our students’ schema in preparation of our teaching. Therefore, we must regularly incorporate practices that allow our students to summon their own chunks in order to best position themselves to be cognitively engaged learners. We do this by getting them to process in terms of What does this make me think of? and What is this like? There are many strategies that can serve this purpose well, but they all must be designed to draw out our students’ own questions about the central concepts in play. When our students ask questions on the front end and throughout their learning, they are more likely to find those analogous intersections that give the new information they are encountering the relational context necessary to support their engagement.

Our students learn better when they are able to connect whatever we are attempting to teach in the context of their questions; and their most essential question is Why are we learning this? To engage in the asking and answering of that question invokes students’ background knowledge and encourages the organizing of emerging understandings. I especially like the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) as a strategy for activating students’ background knowledge through the generating and prioritizing of questions, but there are many ways in which we can provide more opportunities for kids to think in this way about what they’re learning.

Hofstadter, D. R. (2001). Analogy as the core of cognition. In Gentner, D., Holyoak, K. J. & Boicho N. Kokinov, B. N. (Eds.), The analogical mind: Perspectives from cognitive science (pp. 499-538). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press/Bradford Book.

Rethinking the Role of Background Knowledge

Nancy Boyles, Ed.D., is professor emerita at Southern Connecticut State University, an independent literacy consultant, and author of many books about comprehension:

As an independent literacy consultant with a strong interest in reading comprehension, I am aware of the research that supports the usefulness of background knowledge in helping students learn new information about a topic. However, I’m concerned that teachers sometimes go about building this background in ways that undermine students’ comprehension rather than enhance it. I share here two concerns and then a strategy for gauging the knowledge students bring to a piece of informational text.

Recognize the difference between building background knowledge and activating background knowledge

The before-reading part of a literacy lesson often begins with the teacher asking students about their personal connection to a topic. For example, if the article to be read by a class of 4th graders is about the American Revolution, the teacher may begin by asking students what they know about this war. In this class, Jackson’s hand shoots up immediately, and he expounds on his experience walking Boston’s Freedom Trail with his family. He saw Paul Revere’s House and the Old North Church, famous for Revere’s quote, “One if by land, two if by sea.” He visited the Bunker Hill Monument and knew it commemorated the first significant battle of this war. He’d also been to the Boston Tea Party Museum and shared details about that. Indeed, Jackson had lots of background about the Revolutionary War to establish a context for the assigned article.

This is good news for Jackson, but we need to recognize that activating Jackson’s background knowledge did little to build background knowledge for his classmates. Sometimes when one student shares his knowledge, we are lulled into believing that this somehow transfers to other students and that they are vicariously building their own background. Unfortunately, this is seldom true. So, what’s a better plan? Read the article yourself to identify background knowledge that the author assumes. Do students currently have enough background to comprehend it? If they don’t, choose another more basic article or video to build the needed background before moving to the assigned reading.

Building too much background knowledge is counterproductive

When we read an article before assigning it, we sometimes see that the author builds the necessary context within the article itself. In this case, resist the urge to supply the background yourself. If we want students to read closely, let the author do the heavy lifting. If possible, it’s better for students to get the information from the reading instead of from their teacher.

Also, in our zeal to front-load important background knowledge, we sometimes go overboard. How much background do students really need to understand this article about the American Revolution? If the article focuses on the Boston Tea Party, maybe some understanding of the Sons of Liberty is in order, and the word “boycott,” and a couple of other key terms or facts students will encounter in the text. When it comes to informational text, less is more, for too many details and vocabulary words yield instant overload.

Gauging students’ background knowledge

A quick means of gauging students’ knowledge about a topic before an assigned reading is to give them a word splash. The teacher’s job is to create a set of six to eight words related to the subject at hand addressed in the article. The students’ job is to predict how they think the words might be connected. For example, for an article on the Boston Tea Party, a word splash could include: Tea Act, protest, boycott, Mohawk Indians, British parliament, taxes, Sons of Liberty, Sam Adams. If they can easily and accurately connect all these names and terms, perhaps the planned article is too basic. If they can connect some, but not all of the words, the article will fill in the gaps and will be a good fit for the background they bring to the task. If they’re way off base with their proposed connections, build additional background before moving forward with the selected text.

Students feel like they can be “successful at learning this subject because they already know something about it”

Barbara Blackburn is a bestselling author of more than 20 books, including the bestseller Rigor is NOT a Four-Letter Word, Rigor and Differentiation in the Classroom, Money for Good Grades and Other Myths of Motivation, and the Quick Reference Guide to Instructional Rigor. An internationally recognized expert in the areas of rigor, motivation, and leadership, she regularly collaborates with schools and districts for on-site and online professional development. Barbara can be reached through her website: www.barbarablackburnonline.com:

One of my co-authors, Missy Miles, describes an alternative approach to assessing background knowledge: “As students come into class, I hand each of them their own sticky note (which they love). I have a question or other directions written on the board that ask the students to tell me what they know about the topic we are beginning that day in class. The students respond to the statement or question on their sticky notes and then place their notes on the board. After all students have responded, I read each of the sticky notes out loud, often times categorizing their responses into appropriate fields. By verbally acknowledging each sticky note, all students feel as though they have contributed to the ‘background knowledge board.’ More importantly, many students realize they know more about the topic than they first thought as they recognize other students’ responses. I hear whispers in the class such as, ‘Oh, yeah,’ or ‘I knew that!” It causes students to feel as though they can be successful at learning this subject because they already know something about it.”

At times, Missy asks her students to work in small groups to write facts about a particular topic. As a sheet of paper comes around, students write one thing they already know and then pass it to their neighbor. The paper continues around the circle. When it comes around a second time, students can add an additional fact, making sure not to repeat anything that another group member has already stated. This continues until the group has exhausted all thoughts on the subject. Next, switch papers among the groups and ask them to read the other group’s list and see whether there’s anything they can add to it. As Missy explained, “More than likely, they’ll see something on the other group’s list they hadn’t thought of or didn’t know.” I use a Pizza Wheel to accomplish this activity. It allows all students to participate in an authentic manner.

No critical thinking without knowledge

Dave Stuart Jr. is a husband and father who teaches high schoolers in Cedar Springs, Mich. His blog on teaching, DaveStuartJr.com, is read by over 35,000 people each month. When he’s not teaching or spending time with his family, Dave enjoys traveling around the United States speaking to and for teachers. Dave is the author of the bestseller These 6 Things published in July 2018 by Corwin:

American educators often find themselves in a quandary: In our rapidly changing, internet-saturated times, we know that many of our students will work jobs that don’t exist yet, and to prepare them optimally, it seems silly to spend class time learning historical fact or scientific vocabulary or advanced mathematical concepts. Why not instead, the thinking goes, skip straight into “21st century” skill-building? The trouble with this line of thinking is that it misunderstands what cognitive science has made abundantly clear in recent decades: There is no such thing as critical thinking apart from a critical mass of knowledge.

Rather than argue my point from the research (as I do in Chapter 3 of These 6 Things), let me illustrate it with a simple story. One Monday years ago, I had my 9th grade students read an article on the North Korean crisis, and then on Friday, we held a pop-up debate. What should the world do in response to North Korea’s actions? That was our prompt. Within five minutes, it was clear to me that our class consensus was embarrassingly barbaric: The best response would be to annihilate every inch of the rogue state with American nuclear weapons.

Now mind you, I teach intelligent young people, and we hold nearly two dozen debates during our year together. I use mini-lessons on various argumentative, speaking, and listening skills and I give voluminous in-class feedback to students during and after their debate performances. Since this debate was held in the final quarter of the school year, I can tell you that my students weren’t arguing so poorly for lack of skill, skill-based practice, or skill-based instruction.

After ending that day’s debate early, I decided to try something. In each of the four weeks that followed, I gave my students an additional article on North Korea to read and respond to in writing. The articles treated China’s relationships with North Korea, the history of the Korean peninsula since World War II, the humanitarian crisis within North Korea’s borders, and the responses to North Korea being proposed by various experts in international affairs. During these weeks, I did not teach any lessons on the North Korean topic or on critical thinking. When these weeks were through, we again held that pop-up debate: What should the world do in response to North Korea’s actions?

And you know just what happened, don’t you? Not a single child advanced the idea of carpet-bombing the nation. It was our best debate of the year up to that point—one of those where, midway through, you wish there were cameras rolling. And all that had changed—the only variable—was knowledge.

The sooner that American schools can abandon the scientifically invalidated but all-to-intuitive idea that thinking skills can be substantively built apart from a knowledge-rich curricula—that, instead, they need to do what all critical thinkers have always done by building a mini-internet in their minds—the sooner we’ll advance the cause of preparing students for work in the 21st century.

Thanks to Adeyemi, Nancy, Barbara, and Dave for their contributions!

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