Honoring Background Knowledge

Education is all a matter of building bridges.” —Ralph Ellison

One of my favorite television shows is Modern Family, and a favorite character on the show is Cam, the self-proclaimed farm boy from “Missoura” who often refers to his upbringing with tales that often include hog raising and pumpkin launching contests. These stories frequently embarrass his partner, who was raised in southern California on the outskirts of Los Angeles.

Very early in my career, I had the pleasure of having a little dynamo named Ashley in my classroom. Ashley struggled with her school assignments, and she missed a lot of school because of her complicated home life. Ashley had a lot of younger siblings and, since  both of her parents worked multiple jobs that did not easily allow them to take time off, she or one of her older siblings would sometimes need to stay home from school to care for the younger ones when daycare fell through or one of the kids was sick.

What do Ashley and Cam have in common?

It is quite possible that Ashley and Cam would be those students that educators may flippantly say don’t have background knowledge. I’m raising my hand to indicate my guilt. It took me a while to get to a full understanding of how easily we dismiss kids’ experiences as not enough—especially when their experiences are different than our own—or, more importantly, not school sanctioned.

Let’s think about this for a moment. First, it isn’t a secret that the way we do school hasn’t changed much in the last 100 years. Nor is it news that who is in our schools is drastically different than 100 years ago. Yet we maintain that what certain children know—often those kids who live in poverty—isn’t the “right” base of knowledge to have. While this is not the forum to decide what the “right” information is or should be, it is certainly worth a conversation at the school, district, or national level.

But back to these kiddos. While they might not have what we have come to expect as appropriate background knowledge, these students  do indeed possess background knowledge. For example, Ashley knew how to measure the correct amount of dry formula to make a bottle, how to read a schedule and map to get around the city on public transportation, how to take a child’s temperature, and she could cook a full meal for her entire family. However, since she had difficulty with the things that the school gave her, we deemed what she did know as insignificant. With Cam, I can only imagine the knowledge he and his friends gained about trajectory, force, resistance, wind speed and the like as they were figuring out how to launch pumpkins. Or the parameters that needed to be met to net a prize hog: weight, lean mass-to-fat ratio, and length, to name a few. Not to mention knowledge of the appropriate size of the pen as well as feeding, training, grooming and the rules of showing.

For those of us who find our hog prize at the grocery store, none of this is relevant background knowledge and it certainly isn’t school sanctioned. But what if instead of dismissing what Ashley and Cam know from their lived experiences as irrelevant (or worse non-existent), we bridge the rich background knowledge that all kids possess with what schools require them to know and be able to do. If we begin to think of what our students know as a strength and not a deficit, we might have students in all circumstances find learning more relevant. If we remember what Albert Einstein once said, “The only source of knowledge is experience,” it will allow us to be more open-minded about what is truly important.

We also just might learn something from our students along the way.

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