Schema Theory

The term schema, means an organization and orienting attitude that involves active organization of past experiences.  Here is a humorous explanation of schema theory from the perspective of a discussion with a fictional 14 year old nephew after he read something about schema theory.

Well, if he is reading magazines that discuss schema theory, then he is clearly reading things that his peers are not 🙂  (Clearly, Hot Rod magazine would not likely be discussing schema theory!)  So, fund his college education!

“Well Nephew, have you ever wondered why you can remember how to greet someone you have never met before?  Well, your parents started that process by teaching you to say things like “Hello, How are you”, or “It’s once to meet you”. When you meet new people in other places, like school, work or social settings, how would you great them?  Well, you will likely remember what your parents taught you.  This is an example of schema.  You learned how to greet someone, and your brain saved that information.  When you meet someone, your brain realizes that you have the information on how to greet them, and your brain recalls that information.  That is an example of a schema — the process or method of greeting someone.  When you can do it almost without thinking about it, it becomes what is called and automated schema.”

“But how do we get them Uncle Chris?”

“We learn schemas in lots of different ways.  When we read new information, our brain is figuring out how to best store that information and relate it to information we already know.  We can learn things that define how we behave in various situations, like the one I just mentioned.  Our parents, friends, teachers, books, magazine, almost anything we interact with can provide the start of a new schema or make one we already have better.”

“Okay, I get it.  Because we are even talking about this, you are helping me to build a schema.  Maybe I can explain this to someone someday.  So, why do we need schemes?  How do they help us?”

“Those are good questions Nephew.  Schemas are important to learning.  When we need to learn something new, like why is the sky blue during the day and black at night, we can rely upon something simple like the sky is blue when the sun is out and black when the is not.  That is acceptable for a lot of people we meet every day.  But that isn’t enough to answer the question for a scientist.  They need to understand the reasons why the sky is blue because that information can be used in other problems the scientist deals with.

We would call that basic explanation a generalization, or a pretty basic schema.  As we learn information in our science classes, we will start to modify or expand upon that basic schema until we know what we need to know to answer the question.  That means, different people can have more developed schemas on the same topic.  That is why you know more about cars than I do, and why I know the reason why the sky is blue and you don’r — yet.

Your teachers present information to you in certain ways because they are helping you to build an understanding about a topic, and therefore develop the schema for that topic.  Then, when you need to recall it, or be able to use it in different situations, you can.  Does that help?”

“Thanks Uncle, that helped a lot.  I am going to go back to my reading now.”


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