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New information requires prior basic information

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Archived: Building Pyramids: A model of of knowledge representation

By Efrat Furst (PhD), Post-doc Fellow at the Learning Incubator, SEAS, Harvard University. Her  background is in cognitive-neuroscientific research and professional development for educators.

Archived from https://sites.google.com/view/efratfurst/pyramids

Every new piece of knowledge is learnt on the basis of already existing knowledge.
The principle that organizes the knowledge is ‘Making Meaning’, or the ability to integrate and use a new concept in the context of what we already know.
In this pyramid model, every brick is a ‘piece of knowledge’ and the correct placement, on top of previous layer represents ‘meaning’, the final structure requires both.
Every pyramid is also a brick in a higher-level pyramid.

To learn a new piece of information (orange triangles) effectively, it should be learned on the basis of existing prior knowledge (gray triangles). Without prior knowledge (top panel), the new information cannot be integrated meaningfully (create a structure), and would most likely not survive overtime.

Knowledge Building Pyramids 1

Shing Y & Brod G (2016) Effects of Prior Knowledge on Memory: Implications for Education, Mind Brain and Education.


Higher order learning abilities like critical thinking, and creativity are depended on the existence of broad and well-established domain-specific knowledge, in one or more areas. Without this base, new high-level information cannot be structured appropriately, and hence will not be useful and will not be retained (top panel). The wider and more varied the basis of prior knowledge is, the higher, more complex and more creative structures it can support (bottom panel).

Knowledge Building Pyramids 2

Willingham, D. T. (2007). Critical thinking. American Educator, 31(3), 8-19

When the same routine of information is rehearsed during a session, a fast and impressive improvement may be evident . The gain, however, may not last long, when it is largely dependent on the specific context (of time, place, content, method, specific sequence etc.). When context fades as time goes by, the same level of performance cannot be maintained (top panel).

Knowledge Building Pyramids 3

However, when the study or practice in done in effective ways that emphasize crating meaningful connections to prior knowledge (elaboration), and between the newly learned items, we are building a stable structure of knowledge that may survive the passage of time and the absence of the learning context (bottom panel).

Prof. Robert Bjork on the distinction between Learning and Performance.

Bjork, E. L., & Bjork, R. A. (2011). Making things hard on yourself, but in a good way

Often we want learning or practice to be fun for ourselves of for our students, in order to build a positive experience. But if we wish to build knowledge through this experience, we must make sure that something is actually being built. Effective learning should include explicit elements of connecting the new knowledge to prior knowledge in meaningful ways (bottom panel), rather than just playing around with the new concept (top panel). Effective learning maybe more effortful (in a good way) than fun, but the long term results is usually rewarding.

Knowledge Building Pyramids 4

Prof Robert Bjork on Desirable Difficulties

Some things can be learned independently: when the relevant prior knowledge is available and when the learner is able to make the required connections between the new information and the existing knowledge (top panel). But for learning some other things guidance is essential: to supply information, or to to select the relevant information. Often guidance is needed to establish the nature of the relationships between the new and the existing information: a concrete example or a clear explanation that would make the pieces “fall” into the right place. With the appropriate guidance (bottom panel) more can be learned.

Knowledge Building Pyramids 5

Clark, R., Kirschner, P. A., & Sweller, J. (2012). Putting students on the path to learning: The case for fully guided instruction.‏


From neuroscience to the classroom

26th September 2018, by Efrat Furst

Can neuroscience add anything to our understanding of the classroom? And what should teachers make of it? Efrat Furst looks into how this lens might prove useful in the future.



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