What Is the Connection Between Prior Knowledge and Learning?

What Is the Connection Between Prior Knowledge and Learning?

What Is the Connection Between Prior Knowledge and Learning?

What kids do and learn is dependent upon what they already know. What exactly does this mean for parents who want to encourage children’s learning and creativity?

In a recent column posted at “Psychology Today,” Dr. Dona Matthews looked to educational psychology as the underlying impetus for 18 recommendations for parents who want to help children and teenagers thrive at home and school. She based her work on a review of top principles gleaned from psychological research, and published by the American Psychology Association (APA). These principles apply directly to teaching and learning processes. Dr. Matthews considered  the concepts carefully, referred to a complementary article written for educators by Nancy Fenton, and then aligned the material to suggest ways in which parents can support and encourage children’s academic success and intellectual development throughout childhood and adolescence. 

All the suggestions in Dr. Matthews piece are excellent, but #2 in particular stands out for me because it raises a very important point about foundational knowledge that I believe parents sometimes overlook. Here’s the principle as noted within the APA review, and point #2 as presented in the article by Dr. Matthews. This is followed by my reiteration of the point, and a brief discussion about why I think it matters so much. I include other considerations as well.

APA Principle– “What students already know affects their learning.” 

Dr. Matthews – “Start with what your child knows now. All learning builds on prior knowledge. When helping your child acquire a new skill (from sweeping the floor to mastering mathematics), check out his current beliefs and abilities, and build on that. Start by addressing any misconceptions or bad habits, and help him figure out how to do it right, one small step at a time.”

Key Point – When kids build on what they already know, it provides them with a foundational base for moving forward. However we sometimes send kids off to learn something and forget that learning is contingent upon having prior knowledge. Without strong footings, or when there are gaps in a core structure, subsequent layers are liable to collapse. This makes sense from an architectural perspective, but the same general principle applies when thinking about learning and creative pursuits. Knowledge is supportive, enabling one to build ideas and bridges to further understandings. “Knowledge is power.”[1]

Discussion - Let’s say your daughter wants to create a miniature flying machine. This would be next to impossible for her to do unless she has some understanding of aerodynamics and engineering, and she possesses the manual dexterity and skills required to construct such an intricate apparatus. She could acquire understanding and skill development over time and with effort, and this would be the basis for designing and building the machine.

Perhaps your son wants to write a story about someone caught in an avalanche or a tsunami. It would be difficult for him to do that without some knowledge of where and why avalanches or tsunamis occur, and what kinds of experiences other people have had in such harrowing circumstances. Because he can’t actually be “in” a natural disaster like this he would have to research the topic.

With both these examples, kids have to attain knowledge that then becomes a basis for learning, engagement, and creative activity. In the absence of this knowledge, there is little for them to grasp or go on. In every field of endeavor—mathematics, science, athleticism, the arts, you name it—growth and learning are predicated upon what’s already known.

However, that does not mean that children can’t reach out in fresh, unfamiliar, and uncharted directions, too. “Perplexity is the beginning of knowledge.” [2] With that in mind, adults have to be careful not to quash kids’ creative impulses by imposing “but-you-must-learn-this first!” kinds of directives. When kids stretch in new and unexpected ways, and they’re encouraged to ask questions and challenge the status quo, they find out for themselves what they have to come to know in order to be able to progress further and extend their capacities. That sense of discovery and harnessing of curiosity can pave the way for exciting exploratory learning, ongoing knowledge acquisition, and creative ventures. 

Indeed, knowledge, step-by-step forward motion, and also discovery and curiosity are all essential to children’s learning. What else can adults help them embrace? Parents can encourage kids to practice their skills, to set meaningful goals, to recognize their areas of strength and weakness, to persevere, and to take pride in their accomplishments. These ideas and more are encompassed in the psychological principles outlined on the APA website, and in the growth opportunities described in Dr. Matthew’s article, all of which make good sense for adults who want to help kids thrive [3].

For further information on the topic covered here and more, see Beyond Intelligence: Secrets for Raising Happily Productive Kids by Dona Matthews and Joanne Foster (House of Anansi Press, 2014), and check out the resources at beyondintelligence.net 

Top Twenty Principles for Pre-K to 12 Education from the Coalition for Psychology in Schools and Education (CPSE), a group of psychologists and psychology teachers within American Psychological Association 

Parenting for Intelligence and Success by Dona Matthews 

20 Psychological Principles that Will Help Your Students Learn More Effectively by educator Nancy Fenton 

Psychology Podcast The Science of Raising Happily Productive Kids with Dona Matthews interviewed by Scott Barry Kaufman 

Three Ways to Support Children’s Intelligence and Creativity: What to Strive for When Life’s a Whirlwind by Joanne Foster 


1. Philosopher Francis Bacon

2. Poet Khalil Gibran

3. Yes, knowledge is vitally important, but that alone is not enough. Einstein said, “Knowledge of what is does not open the door directly to what should be.” To that end, children still have to put forth effort, get along with others, learn to adapt, and be willing to tackle challenges if they’re going to build, create, reimagine, or advance new frontiers.

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