Capturing Background Knowledge with 21st Century Tools

Everyday I find myself moving away from teaching tools of the overhead projector for example, which seems like a dinosaur now....and into technology tools of the 21st century.  Some of those basic tools of the past like paper and pencil are used less and less by teachers and students each year. Great teaching and learning is still occurring daily, however, the tools we use to make this teaching and learning happen are being replaced with 21st century learning tools that are more efficient and differentiated with methods characteristic of 21st century teaching and learning (see my parent article about 21st education.) In an effort to answer this research question: "How can technology enhance the capture of students' background knowledge?" I used the I-Search research process, a method for teaching students how to conduct research and solve information problems in school. I will walk you through the I-Search components I used in a way that you, too, could use this research method with your students.

In this section students will describe what they already knew about this question when they began their search and why they cared about or were interested in this question.  
Read other student example questions here.

Photo Image @ fotopedia

I researched the question: "How can technology enhance the capture of students’ background knowledge?" and brainstormed what I already knew about "background knowledge and technology" using a concept web using Here is my concept web:

In this section, students will describe the sequence of steps in the search. For example, students will describe what sources they began with, and how these led to further sources. Students will describe problems or breakthroughs in their search-tell when they really got interesting. Students can also tell how their questions changed or expanded as a result of the search process, and they should acknowledge the help they received from others in obtaining valuable sources. 
 Read student examples of the step here.

In addition to searching the internet to find answers to my question, I hit the virtual stacks of ECU's Joyner Library. The internet is full of resources for online graphic organizers, but there is very little research on collecting and capturing background knowledge using web-based tools.  If you consider a KWL (at least the K part) a formative pre-assessment, then there are more web tools being used for this purpose. I also found information on my own personal professional library shelves, especially from the book called Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement by Robert Marzano.


Here students will focus on three or four major findings or conclusions and support them with examples, stories, or arguments that will help the reader understand how they arrived at those conclusions. They will try to connect their findings with their original questions. They might also suggest further questions to explore in the future. Students should include any analyses they did‹cause and effect, pro/con, compare and contrast, or sequencing.  Read here for some more student examples of this step.

What I learned is that although KWL is a research based proven way to increase student achievement, many teachers are still capturing this student knowledge in traditional ways.  Either through whole class charts or  individual student reading response journals.  With both of these methods, efficiency and time is sacraficed, and there is not 100% student participation because either some kids never raise their hand and some kids never get a turn or students are just not held accountable to KWL expections in a reading journal. The feedback I received from teachers is that although they know they should go back and read each child's reader's response journal, they don't always have the time to flip through and actually read through 25-30 journals a day.  What I also found is that there is such an intense focus on improving reading comprehension and so much emphasis on standardized testing in the 21st century, that teacher's attention to considering students' background knowledge is waning..."how much a reader knows about the subject is probably the best predictor of reading comprehension" (Fisher, Frey & Leu, 2009).

Image Shared with permission by Laura Jayne Parson

What I learned is that teachers are capturing background knowledge in a variety of ways using various 21st century tools like Audicity, where students "say" what they know. Also, Glogster is a creative open-ended way for students to show through images and videos what they already know.   Still yet, teachers don't always have time to open 25-30 audio files and/or glogs to review what students have recorded.

Teachers can also capture students' background knowledge using classroom clickers. The pros of this method is that all students can tell what they know (or don't know) at the same time, and one of the cons of this method is the answer choice are limited, where a student might know more about a question than any of the any choices allow. 

Image from my classroom 2009

Wordle is also a 21st century tool that students use to tell what they know.  With this tool, a student's background knowledge will appear in a large to small format, with ideas and words appearing larger for more predominant background knowledge.  The most efficient way I found to capture background knowledge of all students is through the use of Google Forms.  With this method, all students can add as much information as they want and students can complete the form on their own, asynchronously.  I was amazed at the responses by students, I do not think I would have gotten the depth of background knowledge from a whole class chart.  Here are screenshots of web-based ways to capture students' background knowledge using a Google Form K-W-L.

This section will give students a chance to describe how they have developed as a researcher. They will answer the question, "What do you now know about searching for information that you didn't know before?" To answer this question, students will describe those findings that meant the most to them. They might also discuss how their newly found knowledge will affect the way they act or think in the future. Finally, they might want to talk about the skills they have developed as a researcher and writer. Read student examples here.

As a teacher researcher, I synthesized my findings by using the double entry strategy of note-taking.  I found that most definitely, technology can enhance the capture of students' background knowledge.  Here is a screenshot from a KWL made in Google Forms about Immigration & Family Heritage.

Here a screenshot from the way the Google Form looks on the editing side after all students have entered their background information into each field.  This Google Form was created by me to capture 90 students' background information about Geography & Maps. Once students SUBMIT the form, all responses are "dumped" into one spreadsheet.  A teacher can read all students' background knowledge in one document at the same papers, no mess, no cumbersome journals.  The research question has definitely proved that technology can enhance the capture of students' background knowledge.

I was really impressed with the amount, quality and depth of background knowledge I was able to capture by using Google Forms for a KWL chart.  Students responded positively to enter their background knowledge into a "survey." Students were also able complete this on their own and take as much time as they needed.  It also did not take whole class time and teachers were pleased that with the print out of all student "background knowledge data" was collected into one document...that is a strong 'pro' of this format.

This section will have of their references in alphabetical order.

Dochy, F., Segers, M. & Buel, M. (1999). The relation between assessment practices and outcomes of studies: The case of research on prior knowledge. Review of Educational Research, 69(2), 145-186.

Fisher, D., Frey, N. & Leu, D. (2009). Background knowledge: The missing piece of the comprehension puzzle. Portsmouth, NW: Heinemann.

Marzano, R. (2004). Building background knowledge for academic achievement. Alexandria, VA: Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development.

McKeown, M., Beck, I., Sinatra, G., & Loxterman, J. (1992). The relative contribution of prior knowledge and coherent text to comprehension. Reading Research Quarterly, 27(1), 78-93.

Miller, D.  (2002). Reading with meaning: Teaching comprehension in the primary grades. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.


1 comment

Jackie and Danielle said...

Wow! What an amazing tool. I am definitely going to give this a shot with my kiddos. I will be teaching an inclusion class this year, and assessing background knowledge is super important in determining differentiated instruction for all my students! Thank you so very much!
I will certainly share your research.

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