Leading like a Teacher II: Prior knowledge

June 20, 2018

Leaders can learn a lot from teaching models and seeing how other people learn. Following Thomas Gilbert's idea that leaders are in the business of improving team performance, knowing how to effectively teach and enable continuous learning is a useful skill to have.

Using Gilbert's model for performance engineering, performance is determined by three variables:

  1. The value of the accomplishments you decide the work on

  2. Measuring performance

  3. Having efficient behavior (skills, knowledge, tools) to achieve planned results

See Performance Feedback System to learn more about how to design one

Behavior can be directly improved by increasing the skills and knowledge of a team member (we'll call it 'expertise' in this context) or by improving the support tools and environment. The teaching skill comes into play when aiming to help team members develop expertise.

To teach effectively, we need to understand how people learn. Susan Amborse e.l. summarized seven research based principles for smart teaching based on how people learn. Understanding these principles can be very useful for leaders.

  1. Team member's prior knowledge can help or hinder learning

  2. Learning is effected by how information and knowledge is organized

  3. Learners need to be able to know how to apply the learning

  4. Motivation effects learning behavior

  5. Goals and feedback can enhance the learning

  6. Learning climate impact learning

  7. With self-evaluation skills, team members can become self-directed learners

Prior knowledge

People connect what they learn to what they already know, interpreting new information through the lens of their existing knowledge, believes and assumptions (Vygotsky, 1978). Team members don't join teams as blank slates. They each bring a different background, concepts, facts, models, beliefs, attitudes, experience, perspective and education to a task. They have different levels of knowledge about how things should be done, what's important, what works and what doesn't. This prior knowledge influences how they receive new information. Sometimes the prior knowledge is helpful and can accelerate the learning of new things. Other times, prior knowledge can hinder their learning. Team members may have learned something that isn't necessarily true, accurate or the right way of doing or understanding something. Sometimes they may hold onto something that worked in one context, but doesn't work in another. In many cases, things have just changed.

Prior knowledge can be a major obstacle for leaders to implement change and develop expertise in the team. Understanding someone's current understanding and where that point of view originates from opens the door to helping them more effectively change and learn. Whenever there is resistance or learning isn't happening quickly, it helps too try and understand what the extent of their prior knowledge is.

If you connect new knowledge to accurate prior knowledge, you can accelerate learning and improve retention of learning. (For example: "Do you remember when we did that proposal for that customer? Well this is kind of like that, but.....") New knowledge actually sticks better when is has prior knowledge to stick to. People don't always make the connection with new and prior knowledge, so a leader can help them best activate  their prior knowledge by asking questions, or what researchers call elaborative interrogation.

Here are some methods to gauge prior knowledge that Susan Ambrose e.l. mentioned that are adapted for application/learning in the workspace:

  • Talk to colleagues who have worked with team members previous to joining the team

  • Design an assessment

  • Ask team members to assess their own prior knowledge

  • Use brainstorming to reveal prior knowlegde

  • Look for patters of error in their work

Probably the most direct and effective method is asking the right questions to learn about a team member's assumptions, domain knowledge, understanding of concept and so forth.


Any leader should master the what, why and how questions relevant for their context.


See Leadership by Question to learn more about how leaders can use questions to be more effective leaders

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