There are no bad ideas

Activating prior knowledge is a critical step in engaging students and facilitating learning.  There’s a whole bunch of literature in cognitive science that tells us that learning happens when students connect new knowledge to existing knowledge.  Brainstorming is one simple technique that can activate prior knowledge and encourage students to make these connections.

For example, this week I began my human rights class with the following prompt:

Develop an exhaustive list of options that actors (international, domestic, state, NGO, individual, international organizations, MNCs, etc) could do to influence a rights-abusing state to change its behavior.

This kicks off a few weeks’ worth of discussion of various tools that actors can use to influence human rights practices. But, at this point, I didn’t want the students to tell me what the readings said; I wanted their unfiltered ideas. This class is an upper-level class and many students have an interest in human rights and advocacy, so most of the students have some preconceived ideas. One of my learning objectives is to encourage them to think critically about these options.

I then ask them to take 1-2 ideas from the list and think about the following questions:

  • What is required for that option to be effective?
  • Who is the key actor (doing the influencing)? What are the motivations of this actor? What are the tools available to this actor?
  • How effective is this option likely to be? Why/how?

By doing this activity before introducing the topic through readings or lecture, the students activated prior knowledge and, from there, we can situate that knowledge in the context of the course material. The second prompt encourages them to think critically about the options and flows very nicely into my learning objectives for the day.

This technique works well when introducing concepts about which the students may have preconceived beliefs or opinions. I do a similar brainstorming exercise when introducing democracy in my Introduction to Comparative Politics class. Students have a wide range of definitions of democracy and this exercise works to first tap into that knowledge and then tie it to the academic definition of democracy we use in the class.