Schema Theory

What is a Schema?


A schema, or scheme, is an abstract concept proposed by J. Piaget to refer to our, well, abstract concepts. Schemas (or schemata) are units of understanding that can be hierarchically categorized as well as webbed into complex relationships with one another.

For example, think of a house. You probably get an immediate mental image of something out of a kid's storybook: four windows, front door, suburban setting, chimney. However, if I were to amend the object's name slightly, your scheme would shift to a more refined version. How about: Shotgun house? One door, maybe no front windows, low income setting. Mansion? Multiple windows, side entrance for the help, sweeping front drive.

That is a simple example, but our schemas get incredibly complex as we learn more about the world, and particularly as we become experts in a field. The more we know, the bigger and more complex our schemas become. However, the more we know, the easier it is to remember new information related to the schema - because there is more pre-existing information in our heads that we can relate - and thus attach - it to.

For students, their schemas pretty much amount to what they already know about a concept. They may have learned it in other classes or through their own experiences. What they "know" may be incorrect. Our job is to either expand or correct their schemas about important concepts in our fields.

However, no information will attach to their schemas if they we aren't thinking about that schema when the information comes in. Let's say you know a fair bit about prehistoric fossils and take a trip to the Gray Fossil Site. While the guide explains a fossil find that is new to the field (and thus to you), yet you are thinking about the design and outlay of the museum, the information will go in one ear and out the other.

Therefore, the most important rule for teaching based upon Schema Theory is

Make sure students' existing schemas are up and running at a conscious level


What can I do to make students conscious of their schemas?

1. Use advance organizers.

  • "Advance organizer" is an educational term that refers to activities done prior to introducing new material that help students organize - and perhaps prepare to re-organize - their thinking. These can take multiple forms:
    • Review previous lessons or material. This approach works well for linear material, such as mathematics, that builds upon itself.
    • Ask students what they know. By simply starting a class with, "What do you know about ...?" and writing down the answers, you not only raise their schemas to consciousness, but also get a feel for what students already know, as well as where they may have things wrong.
2. Find a "synonym" with which students are likely to be familiar.
  • A similar concept to the one you are about to explain can help students recognize patterns and more quickly learn the new material.  Examples:
    • If the new concept is about Gandhi and nonviolent protest, you might first ask students what they know about the Civil Rights movement here in the U.S.
    • If teaching about balancing large-scale budgets, ask first about personal income, expenditures, and borrowing.


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