Unit 1: The power of prior knowledge and experience

Welcome to unit 1 which explores the learning principles that underpin the power of prior knowledge and experience. Watch this video where James Lang explains how an effective way to help students learn something new is to test it against what they already know.

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The first principle is prior knowledge, and one of the things that we know from the research on education is that people's prior knowledge has a major impact on how they process new knowledge. So as you're teaching them something new, the first thing that a learner will do is sort of search around in their mind for anything else they might have learned about this in the past.
Now that's great, but one of the things the other research shows us is that we don't like to change our sort of paradigms of how the world works. So if new information is coming in that's different from or conflicting with our prior knowledge, we try to either sort of dismiss it or sort of cram it into the existing schemes that we've created in our minds.
So one of the ways that we combat that is by asking students to surface their prior knowledge and sort to tell us what it is they already know about the subject matter, or tell us what their current perspectives on ethics are before we try to start teaching them something new.
And when we do that, it actually is very helpful for people to become more aware of their current biases and perspectives. And so then they tend to be more open to taking in new ideas and information. So as you see, some of the Modules involve asking students to talk about their perspectives or try to solve a problem or answer a question before they've learned anything new. And that is deliberate because that is one of the things that the research on education tells us that this is a very effective method for starting a learning experience.
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Whenever we are learning something new, we normally begin by testing it against what we already know. Researchers refer to what we already know as our prior knowledge, and it turns out that our prior knowledge has a substantial impact on how we process and understand new learning.

The educational theorist Jean Piaget argued that our prior knowledge takes the form of schema, which one might think about as mental models or conceptual maps of our understanding in a particular area. Bain (2004) provides an overview of the theory of schema especially in how it relates to university teaching. We have schema in our minds that govern all our thinking and action.

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Figure 2 The schema in our minds

As teachers, we want students not simply to filter our course content through their existing models, but to change and expand those internal models. One of the most effective ways to accomplish this is by having students articulate and reflect upon their prior knowledge and mental models prior to learning something new.

When students are invited to discuss their understanding and experiences of a subject before they have gained initial exposure to it, this opens the student up to the prospect of change. Moreover, as a happy corollary, this process helps us recognize the specific misconceptions and problems the students have, and it enables these points to be addressed more effectively.

In short, if we do not understand or discuss the ethical understandings that students bring into the room, we are less likely to reach the students with any of the course content. In many of the Modules, we encourage you to invite students to surface their current ideas about ethics, or engage in ethical decision-making activities, before you present the content to them for the first time. This helps students to surface and discuss their prior knowledge and experiences, and gives you a clear picture of what will be most important for you to address and emphasize throughout the Modules.

Almost any learning experience is enhanced when students first have the opportunity to articulate and discuss their prior knowledge about a subject matter. This process can at times seem messy and inefficient, as the students’ initial discussions or ideas will not yet be informed by the theories and ideas which you hope will enrich their understanding.

However, taking even a short amount of time to learn about their understanding helps you to realize the best way to change and enhance the mental models that you have brought into the room.

1.1 Challenges of teaching anti-corruption, integrity and ethics