The problem in this post, which I jokingly refer to as Not to Change the Subject, involves the omission of an important statement. Although this omission may seem like nothing more than an abrupt change of subject, it actually represents a missed opportunity to connect what students already know (i.e. prior knowledge) to the concepts they are about to learn.
Visualizing the Problem
Many of the novice teachers with whom I have worked insisted that they were forging a strong connection between students’ prior knowledge and the content of their lesson. However, a closer look revealed otherwise. Take the following scenario as an example.
Ms. A: “Our journal prompt reads, Describe your favorite commercial and explain why you like it. Now that you have had a few minutes to respond in writing, let’s see who wants to share their response with the class.” [Ms. A. scans the room to see whose hand is raised.]
Bobby: “I wrote about one of the Volkswagen (VW) commercials that came out a few Super Bowls ago. There’s a man who wants a new VW, but the dealer only has a couple in stock. The man claims the car by licking it, like we used to do so our brothers and sisters wouldn’t eat our candy. It’s old, but I remember it because it was so funny.”
Ms. A: “Thanks, Bobby! That’s a good one! I remember that one and several others. All of them were funny. Let’s find out which commercial or ad Cathy wrote about.”
Cathy: “I wrote about a commercial I saw in a YouTube video of funny commercials; it’s the one with the talking baby. The baby is in time out for riding the dog so he keeps busy by buying stock until his mother comes in and takes his IPad. I have seen it 10 times and it still makes me laugh.”
Ms. A: Thanks, Cathy! That’s one of the E-Trade commercials. That talking baby is a big hit!”
Sam: “I wrote about that one too!”
Ms. A: “Great, Sam! I think many of us have the same taste in commercials. I’d love to talk about them more, but we have lots to do today. [Ms. A displays a slide with the purpose and agenda.] Today, we will learn about persuasive techniques in ads and commercials. We will define 7 persuasive techniques, view 2-3 examples of each, and analyze the persuasive techniques in ads–as a class and then in groups. By the end of class, we will be able to….”
Students: [Class reads in unison.] “Identify persuasive techniques in ads and cite textual evidence to support each persuasive technique.”
Unpacking Ms. A’s Introduction
Let’s unpack Ms. A’s introduction one component at a time.
- __Y__Activate Prior Knowledge. Ms. A activated prior knowledge by having students write about their favorite ad/commercial, and by calling on students to share their responses.
- __N__Connect to the Lesson. Ms. A did not explain how aspects of students’ favorite ads/commercials were relevant to the persuasive techniques they were about to learn.
- __Y__Clarify the Purpose and Agenda. Ms. A stated the purpose of the lesson–to learn persuasive techniques in ads and commercials–and listed the activities.
- __Y__State the Objectives. Ms. A reminded students that the objective is what they need to achieve by the end of class and displayed the objective. Then, the students read it aloud.
As the dialogue reveals, Ms. A’s introduction featured nearly all of the necessary components. It also incorporated students’ out-of-school literacies and opportunities for students to respond orally and in writing. Nonetheless, one important element was missing; Ms. A neglected to explain how the commercials that Bobby and Cathy described connected to the persuasive techniques in the lesson. Because this element serves such an important purpose, omitting it may have several negative consequences.
Consequences of Missed Connections
1. Devaluing the Introductory Activity. Left to their own devices, students often misconstrue the purpose of the introductory activity–even when it seems painfully obvious. For example, if Ms. A’s students were asked to explain the purpose of the introductory prompt, their answers may include several of the following statements:
- “The school requires ELA teachers to do journals.”
- “It’s the best way to make students be quiet.”
- “It keeps us from looking at our phones.”
- “They give us busy work so they can take attendance.”
- “We have to practice writing so we don’t fail the exam.”
- “No idea! Commercials and ads–totally random.”
Ms. A’s response, on the other hand, would probably be quite different. Consider the following:
“I knew most of my students would write about commercials that were funny or included celebrities. Such commercials exemplify two persuasive techniques from the lesson (i.e. role model, humor). I wanted students to understand that these elements are persuasive; they are what makes their favorite commercials so compelling. I also wanted them to realize that they already know a little about how persuasive techniques work in ads and commercials, which means they are building on what they already know rather than starting from scratch.”
If teachers don’t state the connection between students’ prior knowledge and the content of the lesson, students are likely to misconstrue the purpose of the introductory question and to perceive that question as less valuable than it actually is, which may diminish students’ motivation to respond in the future.
2. Missed Connections = Missed Learning. Additionally, without a clear statement from the teacher, students are unlikely to grasp the conceptual relationship between their responses and the content of the lesson. Without such an understanding, students cannot use what they already know (i.e. their prior knowledge) as a powerful learning tool. Lent (2012) explains that prior knowledge is important because it helps us “connect or glue new information to old” and to “make sense of new ideas and experiences.” Therefore, if students are not afforded the opportunities necessary for making the most of their prior knowledge, their recall and understanding of new concepts will suffer.
Planning & Implementing
Now that I have shared two important reasons for establishing a clear connection between students’ prior knowledge and new learning, I will share a three-step process that can help you as you attempt to integrate this practice into your instructional repertoire: listen, reiterate, connect.
1. Listen. First, you’ll need to listen to students’ as they share their responses to the introductory question in order to identify the parts of their responses that are directly related to the topic of the lesson. This sharing of responses is often accomplished though whole-class Q&A, especially in secondary settings; however, it could be accomplished through partner or small-group discussion or through the use of a technological tool such as Poll Everywhere or What’sApp.
2. Reiterate. Next, reiterate the parts of students’ responses that are most relevant to the content of the lesson. In doing so, it is not necessary to repeat what each student says; instead you can summarize or paraphrase the most salient points across their “collective” responses. If you are not sure how to do this, the following sentence starters may prove helpful.
- Based on the responses that were shared….
- Several students mentioned that….
- As I listened to your responses, I noticed….
- As I listened to the pair-share, I heard….
- By a show of hands, who selected….
- The top three answers were….
For example, in Ms. A’s introduction, she might have stated that Bobby, Cathy, and Sam all indicated that they had chosen to write about funny, or humorous, commercials.
3. Connect. Finally, you will need to explain how those aspects of students’ responses relate, specifically, to the topic of the lesson. Many novice teachers are reluctant to do so because they think the relationship is so obvious that it need not be stated. However, as this is rarely the case, refusing to make this critical connection casts students in the role of mind-reader–not cool. Other novice teachers are unsure how to frame this step in a clear and simple way. If this is what’s bothering you, see if one of the following helps to frame the relationship you wish to make clear.
- X is one of several Y
- X is one of the reasons for Y
- X is one of the causes of Y
- X is one of the problems with Y
- X is the same type of text (i.e. same genre) as Y
- X is one of the proposed solutions for Y
- X is one of the developments that impacted Y
To learn more about how to effectively structure your lesson introduction, please refer to my entire series of posts on this subject.
Lent, R. C. (2012). Overcoming Textbook Fatigue: 21st Century Tools to Revitalize Teaching and learning. ACSD. Retrieved from http://www.ascd.org/publications/books/113005/chapters/Background-Knowledge@-The-Glue-That-Makes-Learning-Stick.aspx.