How do we build on what students can do?

I spent the last week at a lake house with my family.  It was great to be away from the craziness that is New York City.   It was also great for me to spend some time with the younger members of my family.

As I played with them, I was reminded of all the knowledge children bring with them to a classroom.   They have an understanding of who has more or less.  They devise mental math strategies to keep track of the score during a game.  They can estimate how many lily pads are in the lake.   They can figure out how to evenly share 3 brownies with 2 people.   Most of this was not taught to them in school.

When I was teaching, I was constantly thinking about “prior knowledge” when I planned a lesson.  But I think I was somewhat misguided in what I believed prior knowledge entailed.  I thought it meant what the students had learned in prior years in school.  I didn’t think about what intuitive strategies or knowledge students already had from their experiences in the world.

I also didn’t consider how I could build on that in my classroom.  For example, their intuitive ability to share brownies among different numbers of people can be used to begin to teach fractions.

One group of researchers (see the book below) has documented the intuitive knowledge children bring to the classroom as well as ways to use this knowledge in the classroom.   It’s interesting to see how they foster new strategies and understandings by using what children can already do.

Thinking about how to build on what students can do instead of focusing on what they can’t do changed the way I approached teaching.

What about you?  How do you build on what children can do in your classroom?

Want to know more?

Read Children’s Mathematics: Cognitively Guided Instruction.


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