Academic journal article Middle School Journal

Building and Activating Students' Background Knowledge: It's What They Already Know That Counts

Academic journal article Middle School Journal

Building and Activating Students' Background Knowledge: It's What They Already Know That Counts

Article excerpt

Teachers must assess and build on the background knowledge students possess.

Preparing middle grades students for eventual success in high school involves recognizing that they are transitioning from self-contained, child-centered, elementary classroom settings that are emotionally and academically supportive (Mizelle & Irvin, 2000; Wasserstein, 1995). Acting as adult advocates for students (National Middle School Association [NMSA], 2010), middle grades teachers guide the transition from elementary school by providing a delicate balance between supporting students' academic and developmental differences and encouraging independence and personal learning responsibility (Lounsbury, 2010). Effective teachers realize that young adolescents are greatly influenced by their peers, and they plan curricular experiences that are collaborative and supportive of social contact (McEwin, Dickinson, & Anfara, 2005). These experiences promote conversational opportunities for students to share their thinking and respond to the thinking of peers while developing the background knowledge they need to understand text-based concepts they meet for the first time. Kucan and Beck (2003) hypothesized that peer discussion that supports intellectual engagement with texts is a must if students are to develop higherorder thinking skills. We posit that such engagement also supports building the wide array of background knowledge that middle grades students need to succeed during a typical school day as they move from one content class and text to the next.

The middle level literature has long emphasized the relationship between background knowledge and learning (Beane & Brodhagen, 2001; Gatewood, 1973; Wolfe & Goldman, 2005). Instruction in many elementary school classrooms may lack depth of focus across content areas, with science and social studies often receiving less attention; so students often come to the middle grades with varying amounts of background knowledge. Sometimes that knowledge is inaccurate or has gaps, and sometimes it is complex and robust. Middle level teachers can build and activate appropriate background knowledge, thus enabling students to engage more fully in learning experiences. This ensures students will have access to the complex and interesting ideas that are the focus of their middle grades experience. In this article, we offer examples of instructional techniques that develop and activate students' background knowledge while supporting their ability to expand and share what they are learning.

What exactly is background knowledge?

The population of students in public schools today is more diverse than ever before (Beach, Hull, & O'Brien, 2011; Howard, 2007; National Center for Educational Statistics, 2010), and this diversity involves more than race, ethnicity, and language. Students today are increasingly diverse in terms of their background knowledge and experiences. Some students have had experience with snow and winter storms; others have not. Some students have seen governments collapse; others have not. Some students have been taught multiplication facts; others have not. Some students have been to every museum in the community; others have not. Some students have access at home to new media texts, while others must depend on schools and libraries for Internet access.

Continuous learning is about validating and extending one's background knowledge. An individual's background knowledge develops through interaction with people, places, experiences, Internet sources, texts, and content formally taught. As Marshall (1996) reminds us, "Learning is controlled as much by experiences students bring to the learning situation as it is by the way the information is presented" (p. 81); and this is as true today as it was in the last century (Prensky, 2008).

The example of Amal, a seventh grade immigrant student who had come from Afghanistan two years earlier, illustrates the importance and complex nature of background knowledge. …

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