In case there’s anyone out there who didn’t get the memo: I became a grandmother last month. Our first grandchild, Colten, arrived two months early, on March 18, … which I hope explains why I missed my regularly scheduled CTLT blogging date that month!

Not surprisingly, Colten’s birth has me thinking about babies and learning. On my third day visiting the NICU, I took a book (A.A. Milne’s When We Were Very Young) so I could read to him. His mama warned against over-stimulating him, as he was a preemie, but in my world no one is ever too young to start learning about language and literature.

But was that really Colten’s first exposure to language? No. Of course not. Colten had been hearing his mama’s voice and the rhythms of her speech for weeks, if not months, before his birth. But that’s not all Colten already knew. In her book, Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives, Annie Murphy Paul points out that not even the newest newborn is a blank slate. We enter the world having literally learned some of the behaviors we’ll exhibit during our post-natal lives from pre-natal influences such as “stress, nutrition, and … chemical exposure” (x). When it comes to human beings, there’s evidently no such thing as a “blank slate.”

I mention this because we as instructors so often forget it. We tend to both under-estimate how much our students know when they come to us and over-estimate how much they absolutely must know when they leave. That’s why assessment is so important—and so vexed. We commonly rely on assessment to tell us what (or “how much”) our students have learned in our classes, but do we really know that if our only assessments take place during or at the conclusion of the semester? If we don’t know what students knew when they entered our classrooms for the first time, we can’t possibly judge how much they’ve learned by the time the leave.

This was interestingly demonstrated to me by a former CTLT colleague who once told me that she often begins a semester by administering the final exam from the previous semester. What she found was that almost uniformly her students “improved” by about two letter grades between the first and last day of class. Those who earned “Cs” on the previous semester’s final were generally able to earn “As” in that semester’s final. They were obviously entering the class with some prior knowledge. Those who had no prior knowledge—and therefore “failed” the pervious semester’s final–were generally able to earn “Cs” by the end of the semester. By some measures, everyone had learned about the same amount; they ended up at different places because they started at different places.
In addition to assessing existing knowledge, which can give us a better understanding of what and how much our students are actually learning, we can activate existing knowledge in a way that helps students learn on a daily basis. Back in the “olden days” of my teaching career, we used to talk about integrating “anticipatory sets” into each daily lesson. The anticipatory set was also called the “attention getter” or the “hook,” and it was designed to motivate student learning, to stimulate interest in the lesson, and/or to focus attention or get the students mentally prepared to learn.
Since I first learned about anticipatory sets, I’ve learned more about how the brain works, and I now think of the anticipatory set as the key to activating the dendrites that will connect the new ideas and insights my students gain during class with the existing ideas and inslghts they brought to class, allowing them to construct new knowledge and ways of understanding the world. (Okay, I know that’s not a very scientific explanation, but it’s the basic idea.  Just remember, I majored in English, not neuroscience!)

I use the idea of an anticipatory set in many of my workshops here at CTLT, often asking participants to include in their introductions of themselves some question relevant to the day’s topic. Thus, in a course design workshop, I often ask, “How did you learn to teach?” This gets everyone thinking about learning to teach just as we’re about to start learning even more about teaching. I’m activating prior knowledge in a way that I hope will help people make sense of the ideas I’m introducing.

Whether we’re activating prior knowledge or assessing it, the key is to acknowledge that it exists. Only by refusing to see our students as “blank slates” can we truly help them reach their greatest potential … and that’s true for any class.