Piaget believed that humans learn through the accommodation and assimilation of schemas, connecting old and new ideas. Whereas Vygotsky felt that social interactions were critical in order for children to learn new information. He thought that having discussions with others is the most crucial way that children learn, the use of which he called scaffolding.
Student prior knowledge can be established in many ways, from engaging in conversations with students, giving a short pop quiz either individually or in a group, or building a question wall where students pose questions to show what interests them and what they are curious about. Prior knowledge may be acquired at the start of a lesson and so we may plan to acquire it rather than putting our knowledge of it into an explicit plan.
Once prior knowledge has been established, it is possible to engage with and activate it. This 'activation' is the process that students go through when they are given new information. They hold the new information in their working memory whilst they connect it to prior knowledge and experiences, evaluating it against already established concepts. If new information is sufficiently integrated with existing concepts then it will be ‘learnt’, that is to say, it will be retained in long- term memory. This not only helps students make connections between what they know already and what they are about to learn, it also helps them become mentally engaged in upcoming learning.
Sometimes students don’t have the prior knowledge needed to really understand and master the concepts in an upcoming lesson, especially if what is being taught is novel. So instead of activating prior knowledge, it needs to be created to compensate for its absence. This involves designing activities which develop relevant background knowledge and provide students with an essential knowledge base before exposing them to the new lesson content.