Do you want to help your students to develop a deep understanding of the material you are teaching? It is a noble intention. Yet, many teachers fail to do so. This is not from a lack of trying. Rather, it is because they miss the essential first step.
Foundational Knowledge – The Missing Step In Deep Understanding
Many people see the teaching of knowledge as being the enemy of deeper conceptual understanding. This is not the case. As John Hattie points out, both are needed.
In fact, students cannot develop deep understandings without having a foundational bank of knowledge. Their knowledge base gives them something ‘to think about’. And, it provides the foundation upon which deeper understanding depends. The more facts a student knows, the more capacity they have to glean deeper understandings.
If we want pupils to have good conceptual understanding, they need more facts, not fewer
Consider this example shared by Dan Willingham:
A Year 4 class was starting to learn about rain forests. Thier teacher asked them to state whether they would like to live in a rain forest and to justify why. Students without sufficient background knowledge gave shallow responses such as:
- No, because it would be wet
- Yes, because it would be fun
In this case, the teacher asked students to apply a higher-order thinking skill (justifying) without providing them with a sufficient knowledge base. As a result, it did nothing to deepen their understanding. Sadly, we do this a lot in modern classrooms.
When asked the same question, students with a larger bank of interconnected knowledge gave answers such as:
- No, because the poor soil and constant shade would mean she may have to include meat in her diet, and she was a vegetarian
This is an excellent example of how knowledge builds to allow sophisticated higher-order responses. You can only make that response if you know that:
- Rainforests have poor soil and constant shade
- This makes it difficult to grow agricultural crops there
When the knowledge base is not in place, pupils struggle to develop an understanding of a topic. Deep thinking (such as justification) is essential. Yet, without the prerequisite knowledge, it cannot be used to nurture deep learning.
Sadly, many teachers ask their students to demonstrate deep understanding using strategies such as:
- Problem-based learning
- Inquiry learning
- Rich tasks.
Yet, they do so without teaching their students the foundational knowledge and skills needed to genuinely learn from such strategies.
This explains why research shows that such strategies often fail to have the desired effect on student learning. It is a matter of when they are used (i.e. after developing foundational knowledge), rather than whether they should be used.
Students Can’t Just Look It Up
Some teachers argue that knowledge is irrelevant. Why? Because students can just look things up as they need to.
It is true that the internet gives us unprecedented access to a wealth of information. It is also true that teaching research skills (especially source evaluation) is essential. However, scanning sites for isolated facts does not automatically lead to students developing a deep understanding of the topic at hand.
It is too easy to confuse information access with genuine knowledge acquisition
Access to information does not ensure that students understand what they read – even for good readers.
A student’s capacity to make sense of what they are reading is highly dependent upon their background knowledge of the topic at hand.
Comprehension demands background knowledge.
When you don’t actively build up students’ knowledge of a topic, they cannot engage in any form of meaningful inquiry. They simply don’t know enough about the broader topic to make sense of what they read. And, they have no hope of discerning what is relevant, let alone turning it all into an answer to the assignment question.
If you want to help students develop essential research skills, teach them foundational facts, as well as the skills themselves. A broad, background knowledge provides the foundation for understanding the specific things that they will read on the internet.
You should teach both surface knowledge and develop deeper levels of understanding. This challenges the either–or thinking that we often take when talking about how to teach. There are many examples where changing the word or to the word and makes much more sense. For more on this idea, see One Word That Can Improve Your Teaching.