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What Prior Knowledge, If Any, Does Your Audience Need?

Prior knowledge is what you already know. It makes sense that if your brain works in patterns, it is easier for information to travel down the same, familiar pathways. That is because your thoughts, actions and feelings affect the chemical and electrical signals that travel between the nerve cells or down neuro-pathways in the brain. Nerves, or neurons, are what make the brain work. They are connected by fibers—or synapses—with other nerve cells in the brain. Using prior knowledge to help us learn involves these things called NAPs or neuro-associative pathways. NAPS are the hooks or what is familiar to us. They are the roads in the brain that have been traveled before, making it is easier to go down them again.

These patterns explain why it is hard to break an addiction of any kind. This is why people feel it is easier to acquire skills at a younger age and why they say, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks!” Many people are proving that not only can you teach an old dog new tricks, it is really very good for the old dog to learn new tricks. Old age problems like senile dementia and loss of cognitive capacity have been shown to be preventable and reversible to some extent if the “old dog” keeps learning new things. If you are very good at golf, it may be beneficial to try something new, like art or crossword puzzles. Doing something different uses new areas in the brain, thus creating new NAPS even in older brains (Beiderman & Kalocsai, 1997).

With every thought you think there is a mini analysis going on. Have I been down this path before? It is just like hanging clothes in a closet. Does this thought register with something that is already here? Is it really you? Is it something you want to keep? If you are going to keep it, it helps to have a place to hang it. It is very difficult to learn a new thing if there is no prior knowledge with which to associate it. Have you ever taken a course where you did not have the prerequisite and found yourself lost? If not, perhaps you can imagine the difficulty of being dropped into a high level mathematics class like Calculus 3 without any prior calculus courses. Prior knowledge is the place in the closet where we hang the new thought.