Schema Theory: Why It Matters

Schema theory is a ‘modern’ educational theory on how the brain learns, organizes information, and builds knowledge by association.  In other words, “a reader’s organized knowledge of the world provides the basis for understanding and remembering information in text.”

This theory seems pretty obvious to me, a student of the 80’s and 90’s, whereby, I relied on a structured delivery of information or a scaffolding of what I already knew and built upon.  After having read the article by Armbruster on “Schema Theory and the Design of Content-Area Textbooks”, I am now able to see why the structure of a text might lead me to read and re-read, or in another instance, connect easily with the text, depending on whether the author used schemas to assist the learner in associating their learning.

I have two examples to support schema theory in teaching.  The first is a true failure/success story by my daughter at Tufts University.  Enrolled in the basic Biology1 class that serves as a pre-requisite for all other science classes, my daughter worked tirelessly and gleaned average results at best.  (Crisis Pending).  The short story is that she scrambled, got tutoring help, asked other successful students about study habits… and in the end, realized that the model of a flipped classroom (pre-class prep), with immediate follow-up after the class was the key to success.  She needed to study the slides & notes from the teacher PRIOR to attending the lecture in order to facilitate association and make sense of the lecture.

Last week at Founders Memorial School, I met with group of third graders to facilitate annz-pen-pals4 international pen pal exchange with New Zealand.  None of these students have ever even conceived of life on the other side of the globe, never-mind even composing a letter that makes a connection and follows letter-writing standards.  So, I met with the group and introduced the globe, the continents, and the concept of students just like them in a third grade classroom on the other side of the globe.  We then visited their website and had a constructive discussion of similarities and differences.  This week, 26 precious letters arrived from NZ.  But before we could jump right into letter writing, we had a discussion on making a connection with another pen pal, and took notes on the highlights that we would reference in order to compose our letter to make it meaningful.  Using the doc camera, we demonstrated the nuts and bolts
of composing a letter, including structure, addresses, how to address another person, capital letters and punctuation.  The students took notes from the master list to draw on ideas for their own letter. (Siblings, pets, passions, age, name, time of birth, first language, etc).  This process was to develop a schema to give the students a basis from which to write their own letter.    My own examples included plenty of penmanship and grammatical mistakes, which the students delighted in correcting.




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