Making Connections by Accessing Past Knowledge

The human brain is a pattern maker. It is constantly searching for similarities and differences to keep you safe and to seek possibilities for creativity and innovation. It is helpful, when problem-solving, to be able to think back to the past and recall a similar situation and what you can use or adapt from that experience to solve current challenges.

Prof. Art Costa and Dr Bena Kallick refer to this, in their Habits of Mind framework, as Applying Past Knowledge to New Situations. They refer to this as ‘using what you have learned’ and being able to ‘access prior knowledge and transferring knowledge beyond the situation in which it was learned.’ Art and Bena go on to say, intelligent people can relate what they read, see, do and experience to themselves and the world around them and access ideas to solve problems that they have not faced before.

Whilst education in the 19th and 20th Centuries was focused on passing tests and being able to recall facts and ideas, in contrast, the 21st-Century skills include being able to use what you know.  Andreas Schleicher, the Director for Education and Skills and Special Advisor on Education Policy to the Secretary-General at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in Paris, states, “The world economy no longer pays for what people know, but what they can do with what they know.”

The essence is about using what you know. From a constructivist viewpoint, students cannot learn something new unless they can explain it using something they already know. Therefore, learning requires past knowledge. This is one of the reasons scaffolding learning is so important for better understanding. Getting the foundations right in the early years can really accelerate learning and understanding in later years. These foundations include engraining knowledge such as basic literacy and numeracy skills, the Habits of Mind thinking dispositions, executive functions and learning to learn proficiency.

Fundamental learning to learn skills consist of knowing how to retain information, practising memory techniques, fast recall, making mistakes and being willing to take on tasks for the first time. It is also important for students to be OK with not knowing, a feeling of being uncomfortable, even uncertain, and what Susannah Cole, co-author of Building Flexible Mindsets, refers to as grappling. There is also a connection to learning from mistakes in this Habit of Mind. Thomas Edison purportedly said, “I’ve never made a mistake; I’ve only learned from experience.” Every situation encourages students to find meaning and carry it forward to new situations.  Whilst making mistakes may not be pleasant, the key is to admit them, learn from the experience and try not to repeat them.

Take time to allow students to make connections and create new solutions from what they already know. You might use a thinking tool such as a KWL chart or analogies or ask questions to help students retrieve information.

In this fast-paced world, with an abundance of information at our fingertips, students can often struggle to see the connections and the scaffolds both within a subject and between subjects as they a frequently taught in a silo. Students move from Maths to Science to Art, to Textiles and to English classes with little understanding or encouragement to ‘connect the dots.’ Reuven Feuerstein, clinical, developmental, and cognitive psychologist, called this an ‘episodic grasp of reality’ when the world is perceived as consisting of separate, isolated, and unrelated episodes, events, or items. This perception of reality, where there is no organisation, can result in confusion and chaos.

It is therefore paramount, as educators, that we help students see the connections between subjects and events by taking a more holistic approach to integrating subjects and allowing students to apply their knowledge in differing contexts. Sometimes connections between topics are obvious to find and if not, consider relating the information to a real-life situation. As a teacher, you may like to consider what is ‘life worthy’ of reinforcing in your classroom. Of course, sometimes information just must be learned. Often it is later that this ‘accumulated knowledge’ becomes relevant.

Following is a list of questions you could ask students to help them use what they know.

  • How might this be useful in the future?
  • What does this remind you of?
  • What do you already know about this, that may help you?
  • What are the main ideas to know, and how could these be useful one day?
  • What are some of your experiences that you can relate this learning or knowledge to?
  • Have you seen this happening before?

When students are faced with a problem or challenge that the answer does not seem to be apparent, instead of becoming anxious or worrying, encourage them to take a moment to stop and reflect on what they have done previously or consider what they already know that may help.


Published on Tuesday, November 1st, 2022, under Habits of Mind

Karen Tui Boyes is a champion for Life Long Learning across nations, industries and organisations. Winner of the NZ Educator of the Year 2017 and 2014 and the NZ Speaker of the Year award in 2013 & 2019, Karen is a sought after speaker who continually gets rave reviews from audiences around the world. Her dynamic style and highly informative content—which turns the latest educational research into easy-to-implement strategies and techniques — sets her apart from others in her field.

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