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Unveiling Understanding: The Art of Building on Prior Knowledge in Education

The Early Career Framework states teachers should learn how to... Build on pupils’ prior knowledge, by identifying possible misconceptions and planning how to prevent these forming. How Pupils Learn (Standard 2 – Promote good progress).

In the intricate tapestry of education, teachers hold the key to unlocking the potential of their students. A crucial aspect of this pedagogical artistry involves building on pupils' prior knowledge, a process that goes beyond mere recognition to actively identifying possible misconceptions and strategically planning to prevent their formation. In this blog post, we will delve into the significance of teachers acquiring the skill to navigate and build upon prior knowledge, addressing potential misconceptions before they take root. Drawing on academic references, we will explore the impact of this approach on student learning and cognitive development.

The Importance of Building on Prior Knowledge

1. The Foundation of Learning

Prior knowledge acts as the foundation upon which new information is built (Ambrose et al., 2010). Teachers who understand the significance of this foundation can leverage it to enhance the learning experience. Building on prior knowledge ensures that the new material is not only comprehended more deeply but also integrated more effectively into the existing cognitive framework of the student.

2. Connecting the Dots

Learning is a dynamic process of connecting new information with what is already known (Vygotsky, 1978). Effective teaching involves facilitating these connections by recognising, understanding, and strategically building on the prior knowledge of each student. This approach transforms learning from a disjointed accumulation of facts to a meaningful, interconnected web of understanding.

Identifying Misconceptions: A Proactive Teaching Approach

1. The Nature of Misconceptions

Misconceptions are often barriers to learning, impeding the assimilation of new information (Driver et al., 1994). Teachers must adopt a proactive stance, not only in recognising existing misconceptions but also in foreseeing potential areas where misconceptions might emerge.

2. Preventing Misconceptions

Preventing misconceptions involves careful planning and anticipation. By identifying potential pitfalls and addressing them before they become entrenched, teachers pave the way for a more seamless and accurate understanding of the material.

Strategies for Building on Prior Knowledge and Preventing Misconceptions

1. Diagnostic Assessment

Diagnostic assessments are invaluable tools for understanding students' prior knowledge and identifying potential misconceptions (Black & Wiliam, 1998). These assessments provide insights into individual students' understanding, allowing teachers to tailor their instructional approach based on the unique needs of each learner.

2. Active Engagement and Questioning

Encouraging active engagement through questioning is a powerful strategy (Hattie, 2009). Teachers can use probing questions to elicit and evaluate students' existing understanding, providing an opportunity to identify and correct misconceptions in real-time.

3. Scaffolded Learning

Scaffolded learning involves providing support structures to help students build on their prior knowledge (Wood, Bruner, & Ross, 1976). By gradually increasing the complexity of tasks and content, teachers guide students through a process that builds on what they already know, preventing the formation of misconceptions.

4. Peer Discussions and Collaborative Learning

Peer discussions and collaborative learning environments offer students the chance to articulate their understanding and challenge each other's ideas (Vygotsky, 1978). Through collaborative dialogue, misconceptions can be surfaced and addressed collectively, fostering a shared understanding among students.

The Impact on Student Learning

1. Enhanced Conceptual Understanding

Building on prior knowledge and preventing misconceptions enhances conceptual understanding (Ambrose et al., 2010). Students are better equipped to grasp the intricacies of new material when it aligns with and extends from what they already know, fostering a more profound comprehension of concepts.

2. Increased Cognitive Flexibility

Addressing and preventing misconceptions contribute to increased cognitive flexibility (Spiro et al., 1988). Students who can adapt their existing knowledge structures in response to new information demonstrate higher-order thinking skills and a greater ability to integrate diverse concepts.

3. Improved Problem-Solving Skills

Effective navigation of prior knowledge and misconceptions positively influences problem-solving skills (Vygotsky, 1978). By building on what students already understand and guiding them away from misconceptions, teachers empower students to approach problems with a more accurate and flexible cognitive toolkit.

In the dynamic realm of education, the ability of teachers to build on pupils' prior knowledge and prevent misconceptions is a transformative force. By strategically navigating the landscape of existing understanding and actively addressing potential pitfalls, educators create an environment where learning becomes a continuous and cohesive journey.

As architects of learning, teachers hold the responsibility and privilege of shaping not only what students learn but also how they learn. In the intentional cultivation of prior knowledge and the vigilant prevention of misconceptions lies the potential for an educational experience that transcends rote memorisation, fostering a deep and enduring understanding that serves students well beyond the classroom.


Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. Jossey-Bass.

Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (1998). Assessment and classroom learning. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 5(1), 7-74.

Driver, R., Guesne, E., & Tiberghien, A. (1994). Children's Ideas in Science. Open University Press.

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement. Routledge.

Spiro, R. J., Coulson, R. L., Feltovich, P. J., & Anderson, D. K. (1988). Cognitive flexibility theory: Advanced knowledge acquisition in ill-structured domains. In Advances in the Psychology of Human Intelligence (Vol. 4, pp. 375-411). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Harvard University Press.

Wood, D., Bruner, J. S., & Ross, G. (1976). The role of tutoring in problem solving. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 17(2), 89-100.

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