Prior Knowlege (PK), relevancy & teacher expectations

grades_F_MH900399544“Why’s that teacher do that?”

Ever had a teacher that makes no sense? Ever not understood why the grade was what it was? Ever wanted to just given up on it? As a teacher, every day I wrote up my lesson plans starting with two reminders:

1)  Never Assume Prior Knowledge (PK)!
2) Learning = Relevancy!

The first was a reminder to myself that students may not know all the words coming out of my mouth. I was always reminded of the importance of using words kids know whenever we’d have another non-teacher, adult speak to the class. They always used words and references that the kids hadn’t a clue about. The second reminder was to scold myself into always trying to make whatever we did in class meaningful and relevant to the kids. I did nothing in class without first explaining to the kids why were were doing it. If a student sees no purpose in what is going on in class, it will be very difficult for the student to find success.

Only the most motivated, grade-oriented children can get away with it. Most kids just turn off the teacher like a bad TV channel when it no longer seems important or they don’t know what the teacher is saying. For teachers, these are difficult to attain and maintain on a daily basis. For students, the only way to get a good grade is to keep up with the teacher. It’s impossible to do, though, if none of it makes any sense. It’s like that great Far Side cartoon by Gary Larson in which he compares what the owner says to the dog with what the dog hears: Owner says: “Okay, Ginger, I’ve had it! You say out of the garbage. Understand, Ginger?…” Dog hears: “blah blah GINGER blah blah blah blah blah GINGER…”


“PK!” for Prior Knowledge was a constant slogan in my classroom. Learning is the act of taking New Knowledge and turning it into Prior Knowledge. (Then students get graded on that learning, which is where grades are supposed to come from; please our The Learning Process page for more on how grades don’t always measure learning.) If a student hears a word or concept from a teacher that has no place in the student’s mind, whatever the teacher is doing and everything else that follows it  will be lost. If the math teacher is speaking Chinese, and the student has no PK in Chinese, there will be no learning. Simple, right?

Well, we don’t need to exaggerate for the daily examples of how a lack of PK can leave a student lost in what the teacher is trying to teach. Advancing across every subject there is some idea, word, or concept that is necessary to know in order to understand the next thing. Additionally, those words and concepts must be understood in context, or in the situation in which they are being used by the teacher. You can understand every word in chapter five of a novel and still have no idea what’s going on there if you haven’t read chapters 1-4.  In my history classes, I stressed maps, because knowing where some place is is fundamental to learning more about it. While most kids hated doing my maps, those who could not recognize places on maps were always those who had trouble developing other, relevant information about a place. In other words, geographic PK is fundamental for learning history. Without it, the rest becomes “blah blah blah.”


The reason why generally kids do better in subjects they like is that they already know more about that subject, i.e., they bring more PK to it. We all know that “know it all kid” who has a an answer to every question and whose hand is constantly in the air. These kids are excited and eager to share what they know because they already know it and it’s easy for them, and they can grasp what the teacher is saying. When you already know it, it’s more relevant. Obviously a student who speaks Chinese will find more relevancy in our math class that’s being taught in Chinese than the other students who don’t speak Chinese. But same thing for every kid in every other class: if you know it, it’s more meaningful.

The very best teachers will always build on student PK and relevancy in order to bring them to new learning. I loathe teaching strategies that are designed to teach through student’s perspective. Makes me want to scream when I hear that teachers need to “speak their language” or appeal to the experiences. I find it condescending and demeaning to kids, and, besides, if we are going to teach them through their own world view, should they be teaching us? Instead, we need to bring kids into the relevancy of our topics by developing PK and NK through genuine learning. One of my proudest moments as a teacher was a near screaming match amongst my 9th grade history class arguing over Pre-Pottery Neolithic Natufian society. That they found relevancy in the PPN period mean that they had not only built PK on the topic, they found it meaningful and, thus, relevant.

Teacher Expectations

At a minimum, students cannot learn and cannot be accurately measured, aka graded, on their learning if they are unaware of teacher expectations. The greater the relevancy the more the students will identify and follow teacher expectations. Regardless, a teacher who can develop student engagement but does not clarify expectations will show lower results than from a teacher who is clear in expectations. All the content relevancy in the world is useless if grading expectations and due dates are unclear. The best teachers have who is explicit and consistent expectations, especially on due dates, assessment guidelines, and general instructions.

I always enjoyed giving open ended assignments, because it drives the kids who are good at following instructions nuts, while empowering those who are less particular about instructions. The kids who were totally disengaged, of course, didn’t know where to begin. But the kids who wanted instructions felt constrained and would often plead, “What am I supposed to do?” Whereas the other kids loved it: “What, I can do what I want on this?” Yeah. But to get the good grade on everything else, you’d better follow instructions.

So here’s the crux: some teachers are better at developing PK, relevancy, and setting expectations in students than others. Some kids find some teachers better than others, and some kids are better at some subjects than others. When we ask kids about their “best” and “worst” classes and “favorite” and “least favorite” teachers, usually the teachers align with the classes they enjoy, so the “best” class is also the “favorite” teacher, or the “worst” class is the “least favorite” teacher. We do hear about a “worst” class with a “favorite” teacher, but we rarely hear about a “best” class with a “least favorite” teacher. To paraphrase Abe Lincoln, we can’t fool all the kids all the time, just some of them some of the time.

Now, the student responsibilities

When students come to us for help, we often hear all about the problems with the teacher or the subject. Usually they’re right. Kids make great critics. But if a teacher is deficient (“I hate her”), if a subject is irrelevant (it’s “stupid”), it doesn’t matter. Ultimately, it’s the teacher grading the student, not the other way around. If, as I’d like it to be, students hired, fired, and set teacher pay, then students could have lots of say on the whats and hows of teaching. But that’s not going to happen.

So we work with our students on engaging their classes with what they have. You’re in the class. Done. What’s your goal? Well, if it’s to get a bad grade, you don’t need any help. But if you want a better grade, then let’s talk some strategies on how to take advantage of what your teacher is offering, primarily those expectations for good grades. If you end up liking the class, great, but that’s not the point. The point is to make it meaningful for what it is, and to get out of it what you need: better grades. Once you clarify your teacher expectations, engage the learning the teacher wants from you, seek help where you need it, and make it important enough to do the work, your grade will go up. It’s up to you.

We give our kids the tools they need to succeed even in classes they don’t like. We help them track their assignments, we offer on-demand tutoring, we review essays, and we arrange for study sessions. Even with all that, it’s up to the student. But when they do figure this out, it’s magic, and grades go up.  Well, not magic, but it’s so great to see!

– Michael

The A+ Club from LLC, based in Arlington, VA, is dedicated to helping students across the U.S.A. meet their goals and find the academic success the want and deserve. Contact us here or call now  to (703) 271-5334 to see how we can help.