The NBFA Voice - Background Knowledge

Pam Dalton
NBFA Chief Academic Officer Pam Dalton.
(September 8, 2023) - New Beginnings Family Academy (NBFA) provides students a meaningful, high-quality education through experience-based learning that helps them develop essential social, emotional and critical-thinking skills. To better connect NBFA’s mission to our audience, The NBFA Voice will spotlight important matters on academics, social-emotional learning and more from the voices of NBFA.  
NBFA Chief Academic Officer Pam Dalton shares the growing need to address background knowledge in children. 
If you have been following the news about education in America, you have probably heard something about the importance of background knowledge. Background knowledge is what you know about, and it plays a critical role in comprehension and the ability to learn about topics.
Our brains are designed to look for patterns and categorize them. Optimally, brains are like well-organized, efficient filing systems where information is “tagged” and “filed.” 

Here is an example. Micah, a preschooler, knows a little about dogs. He has had some experience with dogs (e.g., has heard them bark, has petted one, has walked one on a leash). He knows that a dog is a type of animal. His simple “filing” system has everything he knows about dogs in one folder filed inside a bigger file called “Animals.” As he learns more, his brain continues to make more subfolders in the brain.  

For example, he may have learned about basic animal classifications like mammals and reptiles. His dog file is now inside of his mammal file inside his animal file. And the more you know about a topic, the more connections you can make (which helps you remember information). Micah may learn about canine teeth in tigers in science. He may realize that dogs have canine teeth too. His brain will automatically add that information to his dog file. 
MaritimeNBFA students attend science-based field trips at The Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk

Unfortunately, when you don’t know about a topic, it is much harder to learn about it deeply. For example, If I asked you to tell me everything you know about the sport of hurling, you’d probably be at a loss. You might try to guess what hurling might be by connecting it to other sports you know about like curling (hurling sounds like this) or discus (a track throwing sport), but I’d tell you hurling is very different, and is a popular sport in Ireland. Then, if I just let the subject drop, you’d probably forget all about hurling. Your brain wouldn’t store the information because it doesn’t have a framework for it and can’t connect it to something else that you know about.  

You must know something about a topic before you can learn about it. Fortunately, you can learn about topics in lots of ways—experiences, reading, viewing videos, and talking! This is why “meaningful, high-quality education through experience-based learning” is part of NBFA’s mission.  

Our content area units of study are organized around big questions on a topic students can delve into from a variety of angles. We also have community partnerships that support students’ background knowledge. Students at NBFA tour The Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk where they have opportunities to learn about, and even touch, some marine life from Long Island Sound. Through the CT Women’s Hall of Fame, NBFA students learn about the historical contributions women made in their home state and our 6th grade girls participate in STEMFEMS, where they engage in activities that bring science, technology, engineering, and mathematics alive and pique their interest in STEM careers.   

Here at NBFA, we want kids to learn about topics deeply, making strong connections, so information sticks and they can learn even more!