What you don’t know can hurt you: the role of prior applicable knowledge

When my son was just two years old he considered any shape with four sides to be a square and any shape that looks like an “O” was called a circle, he was not only confident of his answers, but looked for a reward for getting it “right”. As parents, we just wanted to encourage him to keep thinking about shapes and hoped that he’d see the difference soon enough. His perception of shapes was quickly changed during playing, when his knowledge of shapes needed to be applied.


Who decides what valuable knowledge is?

The idea that knowledge has value is ancient. In the 1st century AD, Juvenal (55-130) stated “All wish to know but none wish to pay the price. In 1775, Samuel Johnson wrote: “All knowledge is, of itself of some value.”  Not undermining the value of knowledge, Albert Einstein found that “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

In understanding the value in knowledge we must also know that not all knowledge is good/useful and necessary, and as developed by Frederick Taylor, the theory of scientific management, which ensures that economic efficiency was of paramount importance and was maintained, we see that knowledge can indeed be useless, and sometimes just not needed.

Another important concept put forward by Paulo Freire in his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed describes banking education as “fundamentally narrative (in) character”, p.57, with the teacher as the Subject (that is, the active participant) and the students as passive objects.”

Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiques and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. This is the “banking” concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits.

Education is thus seen as a process of depositing knowledge into passive students. Teachers are the epistemological authority in this system; students’ pre-existing knowledge is ignored, aside from what was expected to be ‘deposited’ into them earlier.

These theories all have one thing in common; that I believe might even be common in most societies today, a system deciding what knowledge is useful, what knowledge is needed or what knowledge is good. With this standard in mind, one cannot independently generate new knowledge, to be implemented into our society, without the systems’ consent.

 The importance of prior knowledge

Consider what happens when children learn about fractions for the first time. Many children have trouble accepting the fact that one-fourth is larger than one-eighth because according to their previous knowledge, eight is larger than four (Natl. Research Council, p.15). In chapter 1 of How learning works, Ambrose, et al discussed the importance of teachers to recognize that students bring with them prior knowledge acquired naturally through daily life activities or in prior courses they have studied. The authors when on discussing the relevancy of the prior knowledge the student might bring.

Serious misconceptions/ inaccurate understanding of key principles can affect what the student learns next, as in the example above, a student knows that 2<1, but if you add that 1 above the 2 (1/2) it suddenly becomes less than 1. Ambrose et al emphasized the importance of connecting the prior knowledge with new knowledge in order for effective learning to take place.

In his report Robert J. Marzano said “…although it is true that the extent to which students will learn this new content is dependent on factors such as the skill of the teacher, the interest of the student, and the complexity of the content, the research literature supports one compelling fact: what students already know about the content is one of the strongest indicators of how well they will learn new information relative to the content.” Ambrose et al emphasized the importance of connecting the prior knowledge with the new knowledge in order for effective learning to take place.

I believe the importance lies in skilfully leading a student to access prior knowledge and to show the important connection of gaining new knowledge for future use. In the case of my son, well, let’s just say that he figured out that a rectangle, diamond and a square are different shapes and are generally used for different reasons. Teaching him where these shapes can be used has created a learning opportunity for “Lego Building”.


Freire, P. (1986). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.

National Research Council. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School.
Washington: Natl. Acad., 2000.

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3 Responses to What you don’t know can hurt you: the role of prior applicable knowledge

  1. I was always fascinated by how happy my son was when he got the right answer no matter how many times he did the same thing he was always so proud of himself I’m glad you and your son are experiencing the same joy. But as you know once your son grows up and falls in love he’ll once agin have to learn the shape of a diamond but in the meantime enjoy the “Lego Building”.

  2. skiforlife says:

    Prior knowledge blog you wrote was one I agree with. Prior knowledge is important when education anyone and it has to be valid and factual knowledge. One thing I learned while researching my own blog on the topic was that it is difficult to be sure that we can be sure our prior knowledge is accurate or factual.
    As examples, if I were to use religious faith as part of my prior knowledge it is impossible to prove or verify that it is fact. Science cannot help one here and it is like “painting air” you can’t do it. Culture can create the same problem by passing through the generation’s beliefs that are based maybe loosely on fact, but have been twisted or altered over time much like the child’s game of whispering a statement to a circle of children and having them pass it along. By the time it reaches the last child the statement does not resemble the original at all, starting as fact and ending up so altered that it has lost it’s true meaning thus lost the facts.
    Facts change, history can show this as well as science. In a scientific world the facts change all of the time as one scientist disproves another’s fact. The history of the Acadians here in Nova Scotia has been changed many times by research and from the perspective of those who research the history (the English version is very different than the French and so on).
    In my blog on this I used a personal example and all of this has taught me that we as educators must do our best to use factual prior knowledge at the same time keeping our minds open to change as our facts may be proved wrong later.

    • randyh20 says:

      I realized that culture is important; it gives people a sense of comfort in knowing they’re not alone and that someone else believes and is willing to confirm what you believe. I agree, sometimes there’s a thin line between what is fact and fiction in beliefs we may have been handed or we’ve interpreted for ourselves, but within the context of culture shared practices are seldom questioned until someone realizes that the “earth is not flat”.
      It is however important to know why certain beliefs are held.

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