In Fish is Fish ©, Lionni tells the story of two friends, a fish and a tadpole, who grow up together in a pond. When the tadpole becomes a frog, he’s able to hop out of the pond and discover land. Upon return, he describes to the fish the wondrous things he has seen. The fish imagines these things based on his prior knowledge and understanding of the world. Hence, birds are fish with wings, cows are fish with udders, and people are fish in clothing, and so forth. With an inability to imagine a very different reality, the fish simply superimposes the new on the old.
This story illustrates the impact of a learner’s prior knowledge on new information. Generally, the learner is unaware of their misunderstandings. Bransford, Brown, and Cocking (1999) found a solid research base to support tapping into a learner’s prior knowledge. Learners’ preconceived notions remain unchanged if their initial understanding is not engaged by the instructor. In fact, even if students learn new information about a concept for a test, they may still revert to their original understanding when transferring it to real world applications. For example, in a 1983 study by Wandersee, students prior knowledge on animal food needs biased their understanding of the primary source of food in green plants. Elementary and college students held the misconception that soil was the plants’ food even though many had received instruction on photosynthesis. Bransford et al. suggested that educators find ways to make a learner’s thinking visible in order to address these misconceptions.
Second, a learner’s belief system is tied to their experiences and culture. Sometimes in order to make sense of something new, one needs to see it associated to something known within their culture. Bransford et al. give the example of storytelling, which is an important component of some cultures. This can be associated with the language arts curriculum as a skill. An educator needs to have an understanding of the learners’ cultural background to aid sense-making. Generally, second language educators understand the importance of valuing a learner’s cultural background. Their specific training on the nature of language (linguistics) describes how culture is inextricably tied to language. Therefore, it’s important to use many examples and nonexamples in teaching new concepts. These should be open for discussion to allow learners to make connections to their understandings. In this way, the student introduces their own culture versus the good-willed but misinformed teachers’ understanding of culture not her own.
Third, it’s important to understand the economic, physical, political, linguistic, ethno-cultural, and social environmental barriers to learning new concepts. In my opinion, the fish-is-fish phenomenon occurs with learners whose systems include one or a combination of the following: monolingualism, racial homogeneity, geographic isolation, closed systems (those that exist without need from outside systems), economic hardships, and political isolation. This list is only cursory.
I encountered various environmental barriers when using food to discuss nutrition in the elementary classroom in East Los Angeles. A school grant provided fresh fruits and vegetables with nutrition lessons weekly to a classroom. The day I introduced blueberries became more of a discussion on the fruit than on its nutritional values. The high cost of this fruit, coupled with it not being a part of the ethnic foods generally sold or purchased in the area, made blueberries an oddity. As one can imagine, students were more interested in tasting it than hearing about it. How could I appropriately describe the taste of a blueberry to someone who has never eaten one? The nutrition program’s lesson time frame for eating the fruit was generally on day three; of course, I didn’t stick to the plan. However, in some instances, the fruit was shipped still green, so that it would ripen according to the right day of the lesson plan.
P.S. I received permission from Random House to use this copyrighted illustration for this single blog post!