Sunday, December 12, 2010

Reading Nonfiction: Dealing with Faulty Prior Knowledge

Reading about Antarctica creates the perfect situation to help students learn more about how to change their prior knowledge. In general, readers don't like to change their ideas. With students, this means that they often cling to faulty prior knowledge.

Kids have many faulty ideas about Antarctica. Most of them think that polar bears do eat penguins, that lots of snow falls in Antarctica, and that there's no need for sunglasses or sunscreen. How do I help them to change these ideas while reading nonfiction?

Back when I was doing research for The Forest and the Trees, I came across the work of Graham Nuthall. He was an amazing researcher, taking hours of classroom footage, coding it, and interviewing students weeks and months later to find out what they remembered and why. In a 1999 article, he explained the kinds of activities that students need to engage in to make rich connections:

"This evidence suggests that tasks need to be set up that model and give students practice in activities that involve making connections between related pieces of information and identifying implications and potential differences and contradictions. As students practice these activities and become expert in the habits of mind involved in the activities, these habits become internalized and an unconscious but automatic part of the ways their minds deal with new experiences." (Nuthall 1999)

So I can't just sit the kids down and say, "Hey, kids. Guess what? Polar bears don't eat penguins." Instead, I need to build situations that create an internal mismatch in students' schemas, so that they experience the feeling of resolving this conflict. Our Antarctica readings are perfect for this.

Is it working? Listen to what a student said on Friday: "I know that there aren't any plants at the South Pole. And if there are no plants, there can't be any animals, right? So why is there a research station there? What would they study*?"

This student was putting together related bits of information and identifying the conflict. What great thinking! This is the payoff from reading multiple texts on the same topic--kids have the time and space to think about what fits, and what doesn't.

*We'll be reading about the South Pole this week. While there aren't any animals, there is some interesting research...

No comments:

Post a Comment