Blog do Curso de Medicina da Universidade Estadual de Maringá para a discussão de temas de Educação Médica, Educação das Profissões da Saúde e áreas correlatas.
Blog of University of Maringá Medical School for the discussion of issues of Medical Education, Health Professions Education and related areas.
Prior knowledge is essential for learning
because it helps us make sense of new ideas and information. But when
that prior knowledge is incomplete, confused, or flawed, it can create
barriers to learning. Consider the following scenarios.
I. Novice travelers’ experience:
Awaiting the city bus in Tokyo, an American couple fumbled through
their foreign currency to create various combinations of unfamiliar
coins to pay the yet unknown fare. Their prior knowledge taught
them that city buses require exact change upon entrance; moreover, they
were aware that riders and drivers don’t patiently tolerate the
uninitiated. Why wasn’t the fare posted? Were tickets purchased in
advance? Their anxiety to discover the mysterious cost of this public
transportation adventure rose as the bus approached.
Missing piece of expert local knowledge: Bus fares in Tokyo vary by distance traveled. The fare is paid upon exiting.
II. Novice student’s experience:
“I took notes, studied them, and thought I did well on the history test
until my professor wrote: ‘You misunderstand one of the most basic
principles of this historical era. Plantation tobacco slavery was a
defining characteristic of the southern Chesapeake colonies (Maryland and Virginia). Plantation slavery was NOT a feature of the northern economy as you indicated.’”
Student’s prior knowledge stumbling block: This student came of age in the 21st
century, and Maryland is not commonly perceived as a southern state
today. So if plantation tobacco slavery existed in Maryland, as her
professor indicated, then apparently plantation slavery existed in “the
North,” a conclusion she drew from unknowingly linking her 21st century understanding of Maryland’s regional identity with the expert’s content.
Guiding novice learners New
knowledge builds on existing knowledge, and this strongly agreed-upon
principle is imbedded in our education system and culture. For example,
algebra builds upon mastery of multiplication, and similarly, at the
K-12 level, numerically ordered grades imply that mastery of the third
grade precedes entry to fourth grade. Colleges design prerequisite
courses to scaffold disciplinary expertise.
Pervasive agreement that new knowledge
builds upon prior knowledge, however, rests on the unstated assumption
that one’s prior knowledge is accurate and complete. Yet evidence
abounds that this assumption is wildly optimistic if not frequently
flawed. As the examples above illustrate, whether you are a novice with
the Tokyo bus system or a novice in an introductory history course, your
prior knowledge can become an obstacle rather than a conduit for new
learning. Even with all the necessary prerequisites met, students
commonly begin courses with inadequate prior knowledge or, more
problematically, with prior knowledge that is confused and that includes
misunderstandings, flawed thinking, and misplaced assumptions.
What’s an expert to do?
Step 1: Diagnose For
prior knowledge to accelerate rather than hinder learning, flawed
thinking, misunderstandings, confusion, and misplaced assumptions MUST
be diagnosed. Only when novices recognize their confusion can it be
explored and reconsidered. This is easier said than done, however,
Novices are often unaware of their own flawed thinking or misunderstanding.
Novices who recognize their lack of understanding may be too confused to form questions that experts readily understand.
Novices who risk expressing their confusion with inarticulate
questions that vaguely reference this, that, and the thingamabob are
commonly greeted with blank stares, rolled eyes, impatient gestures, or
Novices frequently bristle at new information or ideas that experts
share, especially when these contradict novices’ understanding or
challenge their worldviews, political identities, or life experiences.
This in turn may lead novices, consciously or unconsciously, to resist
or reject the ideas.
Step 2: Construct an “anatomy of confusion” Rather
than expecting novices to always take the initiative, lead with their
confusion, and willingly make themselves vulnerable, as disciplinary
experts we can strategically bring a sense of curiosity to novices’
perspectives. We can imagine their misunderstandings, errors, and flawed
assumptions as evidence for analyzing and data for constructing our
discipline’s “anatomy of confusion.”
How do we begin?
Gather data for your anatomy of confusion:
Reflect on your teaching experiences in search of common misunderstandings.
Speak with colleagues about patterns of confusion they’ve noticed.
Interview advanced students who may recall recent breakthroughs and remember their earlier confusion.
Brainstorm with novices to increase your insights into their
“flawed” understanding of your expertise. (Remember, colleagues in other
disciplines, family, and friends may be willing novices ready for
Conduct novice brainstorming exercises:
Invite novices to brainstorm all the associations they make with a
word, phrase, or core concept that is vital to your expertise. Note
false associations and omitted ones.
Invite novices to ask questions regarding a core concept you’ve
identified from your discipline. The questions are your data, so look
for imbedded assumptions and note vague references and missing
Classify your data. Common misunderstandings reveal that novices tend to:
Apply familiar-word meanings when discipline-specific meanings are needed
Extend analogies too far or too literally
Apply generalizations erroneously to specific situations
Assume that rules and forms that fit one context or discipline apply equally in a different context or discipline
Miss crucial concepts
Finally, with the addition of
self-assessments to link particular confusion with particular concepts
or levels of mastery, an anatomy of confusion can become a valuable tool
for constructing pathways for novices to follow away from arrays of
misunderstandings toward improved and increased understanding.
Reference: Ambrose et al. (2010) How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
* Dr. Janet G. Hudson is the Faculty Associate Director for Innovative Teaching at the University of South Carolina Center for Teaching Excellence.