Schema theory and the nature of learning

Human knowledge is about much more than single concepts or hierarchical structures. Our long-term memories are awash with all sorts of information, from memories related to our own lives to current affairs, theoretical concepts and partially understood ideas.

In other words, we hold information within our memories that is more complex in its conceptual organisation than lists and snippets of general knowledge. Furthermore, concepts don’t exist in isolation; they are related to each other both in the temporal and causal structure and their relationship to the real world.

Take a simple and common example. You and a group of friends decide to go to restaurant one evening. Already there are concepts that must be understood, even in some rudimentary way. The idea of a restaurant, your relationship and shared histories with your friends, even the very concept of friendship. And what about getting to the restaurant; you’re route through the streets, from one place to another? What time are you meeting? The very concept of time itself? This list can go on and on, but these are things we need not concern ourselves with too much. They are deeply understood because of the manner in which our brains have stored such information.

Let us, therefore, skip ahead to the restaurant. You approach a member of staff. tell them you have a table booked; you are shown to your table, you order drinks (perhaps you ask for a wine list), your party is given menus from which you order your food. At the end of the night you ask for the bill and pay (perhaps you leave a tip).

Now, imagine the same experience, only this time you have no idea what you are supposed to do when arriving at the restaurant. Do you just see a table and sit down? How do you order your food or ask for drinks? How do you know who or how much to pay at the end of the night?

We know what to do when we go for a meal at a restaurant, even if we have never been to that particular restaurant because we have the blueprint stored in our long-term memory. It’s a very useful blueprint because it allows us to expend less cognitive energy on attempting to work out what we’re supposed to do. It’s also adaptable so we can add to it if this new restaurant does things slightly different to the other ones we have visited (so we don’t ask for the wine list when going to McDonald’s for a burger).

Schemas as Cognitive Short-cuts

In the language of psychology, these blueprints are referred to as schemas (actually schemata, but few are so anal about such things). They provide us with useful cognitive short-cuts because the human brain likes short-cuts.

You might have come across the term schemas in relation to concepts like Cognitive Load Theory. Accessing these schemas can take the load off our cognitive effort. They can also help to add context, making new information easier to understand and recall accurately. Take, for example, the following paragraph:

The procedure is actually quite simple. First, you arrange things into different groups. Of course, one pile may be sufficient depending on how much there is to do. If you have to go somewhere else due to lack of facilities that is the next step, otherwise you are pretty well set. It is important not to overdo things. That is, it is better to do too few things at once than too many. In the short run this may not seem important but complications can easily arise. A mistake can be expensive as well. At first the whole procedure will seem complicated.

Perhaps you know instinctively what the above paragraph relates to. If you do, well done. If I asked you to recall the paragraph at a later date you will probably find it difficult because I’ve presented it to you in the absence of context. What if I added a short sentence to it, let’s say “a set of instructions for washing clothes”?

I’ve conducted this experiment many times with my students. Half the class would be given the paragraph without the explanatory title, while the other half would be given the context. The explanatory sentence allows us to activate the schema (washing clothes) and makes recall easier because the context is added. They didn’t have to use up extra cognitive resources because they had been directed towards the short-cut, allowing them to circumvent the problems associated with working memory capacity (or cognitive load, if you wish).

In a very superficial way, this is how Cognitive Load Theory operates; by building up these blueprints and providing us with a map to all the short-cuts.

Schema theory predates Cognitive Load Theory by many years, indeed, the washing clothes example dates back to a study from 1972 by John Bransford and Marcia Johnson, while Bartlett’s classic schema study War of the Ghosts was conducted in the early 1930’s.

Building Context

Schemas, therefore, build context, which in turn aids both recall and understanding.

Here’s another one from Bransford and Johnson:

If the balloons popped, the sound wouldn’t be able to carry since everything would be too far away from the correct floor. A closed window would also prevent the sound from carrying, since most buildings tend to be well insulated. Because the whole operation depends on a steady flow of electricity, a break in the middle of the wire would also cause problems. Of course, the fellow could shout, but the human voice is not loud enough to carry that far. An additional problem is that a string could break on the instrument. Then there could be no accompaniment to the message. It is clear that the best situation would involve less distance. Then there would be fewer potential problems. With face-to-face contact, the least number of things could go wrong.

The passage only makes sense when this image is included, although it’s highly unlikely you would have such a schema stored in your long-term memory (if you have, a applaud you).

The general tenants of schema theory make perfect sense, both in theory and in our experience of the world, as does its inclusion in Cognitive Load Theory. Knowledge and experience become an invaluable form of capital. I add experience here simply because we gain knowledge by both being taught something and by experiencing something, even though the nature and subject of this acquisition may well be different.

For example, I can be taught the causes leading up to the outbreak of war in 1914, but I learned to catch a train from Schiphol to Central Station by following the crowd and then working it out; I had my train catching schema to fall back on, but the one I had needed adapting to suit the new circumstances. When I next had to catch the same train, I had an adapted, more specific schema to access.

The Downside

Schemas aren’t all positive. Schemas can naturally lead to stereotyping, the short-cuts we use to build up representations of other people (such as the turban effect). They can also lead to errors in recall, that is, recalling something based on what we think should be present because it fit with our schema, for example, recalling a non-existing stapler on an office desk.

Despite such negative aspects, encouraging students to build such schemas will ultimately make later learning more effective, building on such schemas adds incremental challenge and ultimately greater progress. What these knowledge schemas should include, however, is part of a much wider debate.

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