Encouraging students to share their collective prior knowledge

At the end of the last lecture on Jan. 26, our teaching seminar reached another new level of inspiration. Dr. Halpern brought three pottery bowls created and made by a potter, herself, and her daughter, respectively. Initially, however, we were given no clue to these three unique artworks and their mysterious creators. Only three bowls of different shapes and colors were displayed in front of our eyes. Using our acquired prior knowledge about the art of pottery, we started to analyze their features, such as their decorative and functional qualities, production technology, and their use of materials. In turn, we checked three bowls with our hands and eyes, gaining a visual and subjective observation of these unknown objects.

Dr. Halpern asked us to consider together the question of who had made each of the bowls. Based on our collective prior knowledge about pottery, an unexpected idea emerged that the biggest bowl, with its flawless surface, seemed to be produced by a machine instead of human hands. In reality, we embarked on the wrong road to approach the truth. The biggest bowl was actually made by a proficient potter whose skillful craft defied the assumption, or even the supposed authority, of prior knowledge.

It indicates that the prior knowledge affected our thinking pattern, and then drove us to believe in a self-assumed conclusion. A useful lesson I learned is that the earlier gained knowledge can’t be guaranteed to work as the universal foundation for the construction of real learning at a new situation. To some extent, thinking outside of the box may transfer the prior knowledge into true learning. Thus, in confronting the issues of literary appreciation in literature teaching class, a potential instructor may encourage the students to share their collective prior knowledge, and then help them to reconstruct their prior learning to analyze the literary materials from a new point of view.

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3 Responses to Encouraging students to share their collective prior knowledge

  1. fhalpern says:

    Thanks for that thoughtful post, Lei. Two things your post made me wonder about. First, could you tell us more about what you mean by how thinking outside the box can make prior knowledge into true learning? What do you mean by “thinking outside the box”?
    Second, it’s really interesting to me that what you mentioned as being salient to you about our discussions of the three bowls–the mistaken idea that the biggest pottery bowl was machine-made–was the point that most stuck with you. In contrast, that was not something that stuck out for me. I thought the idea that I can spot flaws in my own bowl that you guys might not be able to spot (illuminating the difference between conscious incompetence vs. unconscious incompetence) would be the thing that stuck for everyone. But I was wrong, at least in your case. Does it tell us something about how we can’t totally control what students take from our lessons–and how this isn’t always a bad thing?


    • jonrozhon says:

      Yes, precisely. We can’t get inside students heads, so knowing what they will retain is difficult to ascertain. Now that we are almost a month beyond the class, what I retained was a thought that the child’s pot was fairly advanced. I once took a pottery class and found it difficult to work on the wheel, so I was impressed that a child could work with clay and make it look fairly sophisticated. I guess my prior knowledge was released by contemplating Faye’s daughter’s work, and it was a different prior knowledge from others in the class. This resulted in my own unique take aways from the class.
      BTW, nice, thoughtful piece, Lei.

  2. Nancy Chick says:

    Oh, I’m sorry to have missed this class!

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