Helping Our Students Apply Prior Knowledge to New Situations

“Some students do not use their capacity for making connections, a uniquely human capacity. They approach every situation as if it is the first time they ever saw such a problem or task.”

When I came across this article by Art Costa and Bena Kallick recently, I was hooked. So much so that I immediately contacted them and asked for permission to post it here!

The Habits of Mind authors and advocates have shared immeasurable insight and advice with educators over the years. Many of the thinking strategies we share in our ABPC work have roots in the Habits of Mind research and practice.

This short piece is full of practical tips to help students access and apply prior knowledge and know-how to current learning. You can read it in 5-10 minutes. I think you’ll want to save it and share it with colleagues. Whether you’re teaching in-class, online or in a hybrid environment, you’ll be able to adapt some of these strategies. And if you’re a coach or school leader, share the link!

Applying Past Knowledge to New Situations

by Arthur L. Costa and Bena Kallick

“Learning is the ability to make sense out of something you observe based on your past experience and being able to take that observation and associate it with meaning.”Ruth and Art Winter

Intelligent human beings learn from reflecting on and making sense of their experiences. When confronted with a new and perplexing problem they will often connect with experiences from their past. They can often be heard to say, “This reminds me of…” or “This is just like the time when I…” They use analogies such as “when I see this, it is just like this… or the way this operates is just like the way XX operates.” They use past knowledge and experiences to abstract meaning, carry that understanding forward, and apply it in new situations.

Some students do not use their capacity for making connections, a uniquely human capacity. They approach every situation as if it is the first time they ever saw such a problem or task. It’s as if they never heard of it before, even though they may have had the same type of problem just recently. It is as if each experience is encapsulated and has no relationship to what has come before or what comes afterward.

Their thinking is what psychologists refer to as an “episodic grasp of reality” (Feuerstein 1980). That is, each event in life is a separate and discrete event with no connections to what may have come before or with no relation to what follows. Furthermore, their learning is so encapsulated that they seem unable to draw forth from one event and apply it in another context.

Any time you learn something new you need to draw upon two kinds of prior knowledge: connections to the subject at hand and knowledge about how learning works. When students know how learning works, they are more easily able to access connections to the subject at hand.

Learning how to learn is as important as learning the content. The gap for some students may be due to their lack of knowledge about how learning works (Paul, 2013).

As you begin any new learning, ask yourself such questions as:

  • What is the main ideas that I’m supposed to be learning?
  • What will be important ideas that I’ll will take away?
  • What do I already know about this topic?
  • What are some experiences that I relate this to?
  • What cam I do to remember the key ideas?
  • What is it about this topic I may not understand, or am unclear about?

Following is a list of appropriate strategies to help you understand and remember what you are learning so that you can draw upon it for future learning. Ask yourself which of these learning strategies you use frequently:

  • underlining important parts of a text
  • discussing what you are learning with other people
  • drawing pictures or diagrams to better understand the subject.
  • making up questions that you try to answer about this subject
  • thinking back to what you already know about it
  • practicing the concepts of this subject over and over until you know them well
  • thinking about your thinking, to check if you understand the ideas in this subject
  • going back over it again when you don’t understand something
  • making a note of things that you don’t understand very well, so that you can follow them up
  • looking back to see how well you did when you have finished
  • organizing your time to manage my learning
  • making plans for how to do the activities that might be suggested

Remember, connections come to the prepared mind!

“The world economy no longer pays for what people know but for what they can do with what they know.”

Andreas Schleicher, Deputy Director for Education
Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development

References and Resources

Feuerstein, R. Rand, Y.M, Hoffman, M. B., & Miller, R. (1980). Instrumental Enrichment: An Intervention Program for Cognitive Modifiability. Baltimore: University Park Press.

Paul, A. (October 7, 2013). Smart Strategies That Help Students Learn How to Learn,
Mindshift KQED.

Other quick resources from Bena and Art:

Leading With Habits of Mind in Mind: Positive Thoughts During Unprecedented Times

Harnessing the Power of Metacognition in Fragile Times

“We are Better Together Than Apart” — An Interview with Superintendent Greg Hutchings

Subscribe to the Habits of Mind newsletter for even more!

Bena Kallick is a private consultant providing services to school districts, state departments of education, professional organizations, and public agencies throughout the United States and internationally. Her areas of focus include group dynamics, creative and critical thinking, and alternative assessment strategies in the classroom. Kallick has taught at Yale University of Organization and Management, University of Massachusetts Center for Creative and Critical Thinking, and Union Graduate School. She served on the board of Jobs for the Future. Bena Kallick can be reached at [email protected].

Arthur L. Costa is professor emeritus of education at California State University, Sacramento. He has served as a classroom teacher, a curriculum consultant, and assistant superintendent for instruction, and the direction of educational programs for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. He has devoted his career to improving education through, more “thought-full” instruction and assessment. Art Costa can be reached at [email protected].