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Brainstorming and questioning - level 2

Identifying students' prior knowledge and misconceptions

Identifying student prior knowledge helps set the direction for learning by distinguishing 'new' learning from that which is already known; alerts to the transfer of existing understandings that may inhibit new learning; alerts teachers to misunderstandings that may inhibit new learning.

– Best Evidence Synthesis in Social Sciences

Diwali prankster
Key competencies

Thinking: Students are required to think about what they know about a set topic, and distinguish relevant content from that which is not so relevant. They need to be able to think in a given context and make comparisons and contrasts between their own and other people’s thinking.

Image (right): 'Diwali prankster', sourced from Flickr

Formative assessment opportunity

Consider your students’ knowledge of relevant conceptual understandings and teach accordingly. Collect any writing etc produced and use as a measure of initial understandings about this context.


The students pick a celebration that they love and draw the part that they think is the best. The students cut and glue the celebration pictures onto a celebration mural. The teacher and students build up a bank of celebration words to display with the pictures. Words could include: celebration, culture, games, family, whānau, presents, singing, dancing, happy, laughter, fun, love, treats, special clothes, food, traditions. This wall will not only serve as a visual reminder of the many aspects of celebrating, but will also provide vocabulary that can be used and referred to throughout the unit.

What do they understand by the word celebrate?

Students complete the following summary sentences to add to the display:

I celebrate my birthday (or another well known celebration/festival) the same way as (classmate’s name) because we both ______________________________

I celebrate my birthday (or another well known celebration/festival) in a different way than (classmate’s name) because I ______________________________

Choice of activities from Building Conceptual Understanding in Social Sciences (BCUSS), to map and introduce concepts (see Fig 2.2, P12)

Methods you could use to identify prior knowledge and misconceptions include:

  • Brainstorm in two different areas, recording correct assumptions in one place and misconceptions in another. Identifying misconceptions at this stage is a good way to formatively assess the direction of the unit, as well as giving students a feeling of new things to be discovered. It is important that the misconceptions are only recorded at this time.
  • Drawing - a rough drawing of an aspect of this unit is a very effective medium for those students with limited English and gives an instant assessment opportunity.
  • Interviews – with a small group of students of varying abilities. The questions can be tailored to find out exactly what students know or think about a topic, and can be valuable for values exploration and points of later discussion.
  • Writing – Could be about a particular topic or celebration, or could be about the child’s own culture, identity and celebration experiences. Students can be encouraged to write about celebrations that they know of and what is done at those celebrations.
  • Discuss with students what they think about when they have to go to a new place, or go on holiday. What would they take with them? Emphasise the need to have something familiar and why this is important. Write a class book or create a display about why our important objects are important.
  • Invent an imaginary land and tell the students they have to go and live there. What would you take if you could only have 10 things? In this land they don’t have birthdays & weddings – will you still celebrate yours? How could you do it? Why would it be important? Will you include the citizens of your new land?

Create a small ‘discovery box’ with a number of items representing New Zealand festivals and celebrations. Items may include: a poppy, an Easter egg, a picture of fireworks, a Christmas ornament, a picture of the signing of the Treaty, a flag etc. Display these items one by one and ask students to identify both the items and the celebration that they represent. A further idea is to use a 'grab bag' approach.

Make up discovery boxes representing celebrations from the Asian region. Distribute the boxes to groups of students, asking them to work out the stories behind each item and the country the items represent. Once this activity is completed, ask each group to share their findings. If there are items that are not familiar to the group, open the discussion to the whole class and ask for their predictions, providing the correct information if needed. It is important that any children who belong to the culture represented by the objects are seen to be expert and to explain in their own words what they know about the objects and their significance.

Information and artefacts can be collected from a variety of sources. Some suggestions are:

  • From the homes of students, their families/neighbours
  • From community organisations that have links to local Asian or migrant communities
  • From embassies
  • From local museums
  • Replicas can often be bought cheaply from Asian supermarkets or $2 shops
  • Children could create replicas, combined with electronic images.

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