EEF Blog: ECF– Exploring the Evidence: Prior knowledge and Pupil Misconceptions

The Early Career Framework (or ‘ECF’) is the evidence base which underpins a new entitlement to a structured 2-year package of high-quality professional development for early career teachers. It sets out what early career teachers should be entitled to learn about and learn how to do when entering the teaching profession.

This blog from Research and Policy Manager Harry Madgwick builds on the contents of the ECF to explore how teachers can approach making use of prior knowledge to head off pupil misconceptions.

What does it mean to ‘know’ a historical period, or the process of osmosis in science? Teachers can teach the curriculum with confidence without grappling with wider questions of ‘knowledge’, but the debates about ‘knowledge-rich’ curricula, and similar, offer useful ground to carefully consider the role of ‘knowledge’ in teaching and learning.

The primacy of prior knowledge

Knowledge, or more specifically prior knowledge, is one of the most crucial factors influencing a person’s ability to learn [1]. When pupils are introduced to new ideas and concepts, they try to make sense of them by relating back to what they already know. The ability to recall previously learnt facts from memory assists the acquisition of new knowledge, allowing pupils to connect more complex ideas with their existing understanding. The weaker prior knowledge is, the more likely pupils are to develop misconceptions.

But how can we ensure that pupils acquire knowledge in a way that allows them to make appropriate connections between words, concepts, and information? 


On How Pupils Learn and Subject and Curriculum, the Early Career Framework states that:

  • Prior knowledge plays an important role in how pupils learn; committing some key facts to their long-term memory is likely to help pupils learn more complex ideas.
  • Long-term memory can be considered as a store of knowledge that changes as pupils learn by integrating new ideas with existing knowledge.
  • Where prior knowledge is weak, pupils are more likely to develop misconceptions, particularly if new ideas are introduced too quickly.
  • Anticipating common misconceptions within particular subjects is also an important aspect of curricular knowledge; working closely with colleagues to develop an understanding of likely misconceptions is valuable.
  • In all subject areas, pupils learn new ideas by linking those ideas to existing knowledge, organising this knowledge into increasingly complex mental models (or “schemata”); carefully sequencing teaching to facilitate this process is important.

To answer this question, we must delve a little further into how knowledge is arranged in the mind.

Meaningful mental models

One crucial theory that has emerged from cognitive science research is that humans develop and store information in their long-term memory, and that this is done by categorising knowledge into mental models (also known as ‘schemata’) [2].

The shape and structure of these models varies depending upon the level of knowledge the learner has within a specific subject domain. For example, a KS2 pupil studying osmosis for the first time will have a much smaller and simpler mental model to that of their biology teacher with a science degree in Biomedical Sciences.

As experts in their subjects, teachers can help develop the depth and complexity of pupils’ mental models. One important way teachers can assist the learning and organisation of information is to adjust their teaching according to the prior knowledge of their pupils. Teachers might:

  • Add new information to address alack of prior knowledge;
  • Fill in gaps of incomplete prior knowledge; or
  • Correct misconceptions of existing but incorrect prior knowledge [3].

Most teachers will tell you that the third of these activities is by far the most challenging. In the first two contexts, the teacher is addressing a lack of knowledge, carefully sequencing content so that foundational concepts and information are fully embedded before moving on to more complex ideas.

The correction of misconceptions is much more difficult. Individual pupils’ incorrect assumptions, ideas and categorisations can form from their full range of life experiences – including those that happen outside the school gates.

Misconceptions can also become ingrained in pupils’ long-term memory, meaning mental models may include, or even be built upon, falsehoods. For example, in history, a pupil may have a shaky understanding of the War of the Roses, perceiving Richard III as an irredeemable villain because they have watched a witty parody on Horrible Histories.

Managing Misconceptions

Despite the challenge, effective teachers make a habit of managing pupil misconceptions. In the ECF, it states the value of ‘structuring tasks and questions to enable the identification of knowledge gaps and misconceptions’. As Dr Niki Kaiser exemplifies here, the isolation and correction of misconceptions is a crucial part of a teacher’s daily practice. 

Anticipating misconceptions: When planning to introduce a new idea or concept, teachers use their combined knowledge both of curriculum content and their pupils to pre-empt what the class may find challenging, and how misunderstandings might arise [4].

Teachers might ask themselves:

  • What other information have pupils previously learnt that the new idea/concept follows on from?
  • How will pupils who lack the necessary prior knowledge interpret the new information?
  • How have pupils responded to the teaching of this idea/concept in the past? What misconceptions often arise in this lesson or topic?

Teaching correct conceptions: Effective teacher instruction can help to reduce the chances of misconceptions forming in the first place. Teaching content in manageable steps and providing guided opportunities for pupils to apply what they learn can increase the likelihood that new information is received and processed correctly [5]. Similarly, by narrating their own thought processes, teachers can model how expert learners make sense of and apply new information to tasks, reducing the chances of new knowledge being wrongly applied [6].

Addressing emerging misconceptions: Once new knowledge has been taught, teachers can use assessment to gain insights into how well their pupils have understood and unearth specific misconceptions (see 5 methods for doing this in maths, as explained by Simon Cox). Teachers can then provide feedback to address pupil errors. Evidence suggests that this is most likely to be effective when the feedback provided gives a clear explanation of the nature of the misconception [7]. 

Children and young people bring such a broad range of experiences and preconceptions with them to the classroom. Teachers can never fully predict or comprehend the multitude of ways in which new information is received, and so, probing pupils’ prior knowledge and addressing their misconceptions is essential.

The Education Endowment Foundation independently assessed and endorsed the evidence that underpins the Early Career Framework and have also quality assured the training content developed from it, ensuring materials build upon the best available evidence. This blog series – ‘ECF – Exploring the Evidence…’ aims to build upon the content underpinning the ECF. 

References

  1. Simonsmeier, B. A., Flaig, M., Deiglmayr, A., Schalk, L., & Well-being, S. (2018) Domain-Specific Prior Knowledge and Learning: A Meta-Analysis Prior Knowledge and Learning.
  2. Sweller, J., van Merrienboer, J. J. G., & Paas, F. G. W. C. (1998) Cognitive Architecture and Instructional Design. Educational Psychology Review, 10(3), 251–296
  3. Chi, M. T. (2009) Three types of conceptual change: Belief revision, mental model transformation, and categorical shift. In International handbook of research on conceptual change (pp. 89-110). Routledge.
  4. Ball, D. L., Thames, M. H., & Phelps, G. (2008) Content knowledge for teachers: What makes it special? Journal of Teacher Education, 2008 59: 389
  5. Rosenshine, B. (2012) Principles of Instruction: Research-based strategies that all teachers should know. American Educator, 12–20.
  6. Education Endowment Foundation (2017) Metacognition and Self-regulated learning Guidance Report.
  7. Rich, P. R., Van Loon, M. H., Dunlosky, J., & Zaragoza, M. S. (2017) Belief in corrective feedback for common misconceptions: Implications for knowledge revision. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 43(3), 492-501.