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Working in the world of environmental education, we don’t often have the opportunity to spend extended amounts of our time with our students. Many of us teach in single or multi-day programs, within which time we do our best to quickly get to know our students. We work to help them connect with the world around them, each other, and themselves through the exploration of natural spaces. Given this limited time frame, we might logically look for ways to help students make connections to new ideas with ones they already hold. By showing curiosity about who they are and their interests, we build relationships and gain insight into how we can engage and encourage them. As it turns out, this is not only a great way to build rapport with our students, but it is also a way to help them create neurological ties that act as bridges between prior knowledge and new knowledge, creating learning (Zadina, 2014).

So what are some of the ways you might intentionally build time into your instruction to dig into students prior understandings? Here are a few strategies that have become favorites in my teaching practice:

  1. Think-Pair-Share: Give students a chance to collaborate with others to spark ideas and memories! Many educators use a variation of this technique simply as “pair-share” or “turn-and-talk” and they may be missing a key opportunity for students to synthesize their thoughts in omitting the “think” step. By allowing students some time to think quietly to themselves, we give space for slower processors to generate ideas and faster processors to improve upon their initial thoughts. You might even build momentum for ideas by having a pair share with another pair and then another before coming together as a whole group!
  2. Listening Mind MapMind-Maps: a brainstorming activity where you begin with a central idea and build upon it with associations. This is a great assessment tool to find out what kind of links your students are already making and give you a sense of where to begin building the bridges. To create a mind map, begin with the central idea in the middle of your page, and draw out a line for each big connection, with lines from those tying bigger categories to smaller ideas or examples of those ideas. You will eventually have a visual web of knowledge, giving you a sense of students’ thought processes and understandings.
  3. The tried and true “What do you think?” method: here you are simply drawing more out of students by asking for their opinions, why they might think something, and to share more about an idea. This method is so simple that its value might be overlooked as a teaching technique; yet by being intentional with our responses, we give the students the opportunity to do the “cognitive lifting” in the learning process. Once you are ready to continue expanding your questioning strategies, you might begin reflecting on the types of questions you’re asking and what you’re hoping to draw out of your students. Are you asking “closed” questions that could stifle the exploration or “open-ended” questions that allow for many possible answers, or even a strategic combination of both to encourage curiosity, claim & evidence, and synthesis of ideas.
  4. KWL chartKWL charts: “Know”, “Want to know”, and “Learned” is a great way to gauge student prior knowledge, interests, and then assess where they might be in relation to that knowledge and interest after a lesson or experience. Additionally, this is also a great way to empower the students with a metacognitive awareness of their own learning process. They can take stock of their understandings individually or as a group, articulate their desire for learning by expressing their interests, and then track their own progress.
  5. Journal Questions: having students answer questions or free-write based on a topic can give you a way to see how they’re able to synthesize their current understanding. In having all students writing, you are allowing for everyone to share instead of only those students who are comfortable speaking up. Students may also be more inclined to participate in discussion after discussion, have new ideas emerge and remember their ideas after having a chance to think and write (Lemov, 2015).

These are just a few of the many ways that you might be able to help your students to learn and build understanding. As you activate students’ funds of knowledge and assess where they are, you may come across interesting or surprising interpretations. Misunderstandings and misconceptions are not only common and totally okay; they provide us an opportunity to learn and improve our understanding! Thinking about how to facilitate student growth, it is important to be mindful of the ways that you are leaving space for mistakes, creating a culture of error. In order for students to have the courage and confidence to share, we must make sure that we are honoring them by making our belief in their capacities explicit. This practice of activating prior knowledge may not only be a great educational strategy, but also a potential way to engage in a positive and supportive learning culture.

Zadina, J. N. (2014). Multiple Pathways to the Student Brain: Energizing and Enhancing Instruction. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.19.

Lemov, D. (2015). Teach Like a Champion 2.0. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. 281-289.