Background Knowledge and Adult Learning


Ross McGowan in sight of his first European Tour title after an amazing third round at the Madrid Masters.



So I'm laying on my folks' couch watching afternoon golf in the Centro Nacional de Golf Madrid, and thinking, Madrid ...

I'm thinking red roofs and Spain and the costa del sol (which might not be right). I'm thinking Spanish Civil War and George Orwell and Picasso's painting about the bombing (you know, the one that starts with G). I'm thinking Casablanca (inexplicably) and Columbus and Seville (which is maybe in Italy) and flamingo guitar and ladies' legs and that closing scene in the movie From Russia With Love which always looks like Spain, but maybe its Portugal. I'm thinking about reading somewhere that Spain's Gross National Product is greater than Saudi Arabia's, and that Spanish fishermen used to fish off Newfoundland, and that Wellington entered Europe through Spain in his wars against Napoleon (which might also be wrong), and....

Well, you get the idea.

Golfers are chipping or putting for birdies, commentators are whispering sweet nothings about the wind and the lie, and I - learning that this game is taking place in Madrid - call up a host of images and ideas and memories and associations having to do (in my mind) with Spain.

Background knowledge - don't it make the world go round!

I don't know exactly why I have all this information of dubious accuracy and import.

No, that's wrong. I do know why: because I'm a visual learner; because I grew up in a household where we had free access to magazines and atlases and dictionaries and books, books, books; because I was free to hang with my parents watching documentaries on television and listening to world news on CBC radio; because I spent unfettered time on a university campus once, learning interesting histories from marxists and Catholic priests. So that, by the time I was 25, I had both a wealth of ideas and images cluttered away in my memory, and a sense of comfort with a variety of topics and disciplines.

(Note: There's something to be said here for family literacy and play-based learning at home, but I don't want to lose the thread of my thoughts.)

It doesn't matter that my associations are hopelessly garbled and misspelt. They are still effective because they are there to build upon as I learn new things or refine previously held ideas. Talk to me about Spain, and I will probably understand you, because I already know something related to what you're talking about.



Background knowledge and a storehouse of associations is something many of my learner's don't have. And that's a problem.

Interestingly, a lack of background knowledge is not much of a problem when I'm supporting adults with lower reading levels. In those circumstances, it's often a matter of linking up words to read or write with something personally encountered. That's the heart of "experience stories".

For example, suppose somebody enjoys working on their car at home. It's easy to build sentences and reading vocabulary around that experience. We can play with common words (working on, working at, working in, working for) or push tenses around (work, works, worked, working). We can use these words to create narrative or build an employable skills portfolio. There are lots of possibilities, and most involve a reading-writing vocabulary of less than 800 words.


On the other hand, even adults with a reading-writing vocabulary of several thousand words can be mystified by references to people, places, events and ideas they've had little or no contact with.

What does the statement "Columbus was working for the Spanish crown" mean to someone with no relevant images or associations for "Spain"? And if they have no associated images or memories, how are they to gain them?

This, I think, is the lesser challenge facing so-called Level II learners, adults able to read text with a 6 to 8 level of difficulty: they can often read beyond their scope of experience and associations.

I call this a lesser challenge because, after all, it's easily remedied. All that's required is time, space and resources. We need only allow adults to build up their store of experiences and mental images. In an age of public museums and libraries, cable television and the internet, nothing should be easier.

Sadly, these learners are rarely given that time and space. After all, these are people who are relatively independent - or, at least, who we expect to be relatively independent.

Family or work responsibilities, a low fixed income, uncertain personal health, a self- or externally-imposed time limit for obtaining a GED, or the self-defeating negative emotions that range from frustration to fear are just some of the factors that can keep, say, a twenty-eight year old single mom from developing mental associations for the word "Spain".... or "legislature" or "papacy" or "electron".

How much time would they need? I don't know, but I suspect a lot - more if they approach new information guardedly. Is there a way to cram? I don't know. What's the answer, then? I don't know.

I really don't know.

I'm just saying.

I was watching a golf game, a screen graphic said it was being played in Madrid, and I was able to call up dozens of associations of greater or lesser accuracy. That skill or resource or whatever-it-is makes learning easy for me.

My learners have fewer such associations. That makes learning hard for them.

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