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Questioning and brainstorming

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 - Alignment

Child with henna decorations on her hand

Key competencies

Thinking: Students distinguish relevant content from that which is not so relevant. They compare and contrast their own and other people’s thinking.

Formative assessment opportunity

Collect data using the methods suggested below to measure students' initial understandings.


Choice of activities from Building Conceptual Understanding in Social Sciences (BCUSS), to map and introduce concepts – Figure 2.3 Approaches to building conceptual understandings

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

Teacher records students’ 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.

A drawing of an aspect of this unit is a very effective medium for those students with limited English and gives an instant assessment.

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 for later discussion.

Writing – could be about a particular topic or celebration, or could be about the child’s own culture, identity and celebration experiences. This has as little teacher input as possible to get the information needed.

Word definitions – Give pairs of students a selection of concept and curriculum words from this topic. Ask them for possible definitions and contexts for these words. After sharing their ideas, the students can find the actual definitions and rethink their thoughts regarding context. These make a good word wall to be referred back to during the unit. This can facilitate good initial thinking and talking about the core concepts of a topic, and also serves the purpose of introducing important vocabulary.

PMI – Discuss with students the effects of having people from a variety of cultures in the class and in their community. Draw up a Plus Minus Interesting (PMI) chart.

Concept map – Make a concept map of all the ways we express or demonstrate our culture, at school, at home and in the community.

Brainstorm ways that you could share your culture with another community.

Discuss the concept that when people from one culture move to a new land where some things are done differently, they often make changes to adapt to the new way of life, and aspects of their culture and how it is expressed change. A stunning example of this to use with students is The Arrival, by Shaun Tan (Lothian Books, 2006). Students can examine and interpret this graphic novel in a variety of ways, as well as possibly write a text to accompany Tan’s illustrations.

Get class to investigate their own migration stories. When did their families come to New Zealand? Why did they come? Find examples of things that are different in their homeland and in New Zealand, and how their families have changed their cultural practices. Some areas of example are food, clothing and personal decoration, how religion is celebrated, schooling, the way children are disciplined, the freedom of teenagers etc. Students suggest how a group from their local area, if they had moved to live in another country, would contribute to their new community. Students could examine the way indigenous cultures and traditions can be altered, positively or negatively, through migration from other cultures. Create a histogram of your results.

Create a “ Wonder Wall”. This is a space in the classroom where children can add questions or thoughts about the topic at any time during the day. The questions could be answered at a designated time as a whole class, researched for homework or in the classroom, or another child could post the answer on the wall. Encourage thinking around the problem, and possibly give prompts to enhance the quality of questions:

  • I wonder why...
  • I wonder if...
  • I wonder what would/would not have happened if...
  • I wonder who...
  • I wonder how...

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