As part of the Early Career Framework, it is expected that early career teachers learn that… In all subject areas, pupils learn new ideas by linking those ideas to existing knowledge, organising this knowledge into increasingly complex mental models (or “schemata”); carefully sequencing teaching to facilitate this process is important.

Schemas are categories of information stored in long-term memory. A schema contains groups of linked memories, concepts or words. This grouping of things acts as a cognitive shortcut, making storing new things in your long-term memory and retrieval of them much quicker and more efficient.

For example: If I smell a cake being baked, it reminds me of things I used to do with my Nan, as we used to bake cakes together. The smell of baking cakes is part of my “Nan” schema.

Schemata were initially introduced into psychology and education through the work of the British psychologist Sir Frederic Bartlett (1886–1969). In carrying out a series of studies on the recall of Native American folktales, Bartlett noticed that many of the recalls were not accurate, but involved the replacement of unfamiliar information with something more familiar. They also included many inferences that went beyond the information given in the original text. In order to account for these findings, Bartlett proposed that people have schemata, or unconscious mental structures, that represent an individual's generic knowledge about the world. It is through schemata that old knowledge influences new information.

For example, one of Bartlett's participants read the phrase "something black came out of his mouth" and later recalled it as "he foamed at the mouth." This finding could be accounted for by assuming that the input information was not consistent with any schema held by the participant, and so the original information was reconstructed in a form that was consistent with one of the participant's schemata. The schema construct was developed during the period when psychology was strongly influenced by behaviourist and associationistic approaches; because the schema construct was not compatible with these worldviews, it eventually faded from view.

In the 1970s, however, the schema construct was reintroduced into psychology though the work of the computer scientist Marvin Minsky. Minsky was attempting to develop machines that would display human-like abilities (e.g., to perceive and understand the world). In the course of trying to solve these difficult problems, he came across Bartlett's work. Minsky concluded that humans were using their stored knowledge about the world to carry out many of the processes that he was trying to emulate by machine, and he therefore needed to provide his machines with this type of knowledge if they were ever to achieve human-like abilities. Minsky developed the frame construct as a way to represent knowledge in machines. Minsky's frame proposal can be seen as essentially an elaboration and specification of the schema construct. He conceived of the frame knowledge as interacting with new specific information coming from the world. He proposed that fixed generic information be represented as a frame comprised of slots that accept a certain range of values. If the world did not provide a specific value for a particular slot, then it could be filled by a default value.

In 1980 the cognitive psychologist David Rumelhart elaborated on Minsky's ideas and turned them into an explicitly psychological theory of the mental representation of complex knowledge. Roger Schank and Robert Abelson developed the script construct to deal with generic knowledge of sequences of actions. Schema theory provided explanations for many experiments already in the literature, and led to a very wide variety of new empirical studies. Providing a relevant schema improved comprehension and recall of opaquely written passages, and strong schemata were shown to lead to high rates of inferential errors in recall.

Much has been written about the use of schema in education, teaching and learning. Paul Fulbrook has written a complete guide to schema and its role in education and you can read it here. The EEF has also written about the use of schema in education on their blog discussing working with schemas and why it matters to teachers. EducationWeek also has an article entitled What Is Schema? How Do We Help Students Build It? which is also very useful.

One particular aspect of learning that instructors should consider is how students use prior knowledge to comprehend and learn from text. Schema Theory emphasizes the mental connections learners make between pieces of information and can be a very powerful component of the learning process. It has been said that the fundamental principle of schema theory assumes that written text does not carry meaning by itself and that it can only provide direction for learners as to how they should retrieve or construct meaning from their own previously acquired knowledge. The activation of a learner’s schema may be recognized as the process in which “textual stimuli signal the direction or area for the reader to look for and evoke the relevant schema from memory into the present reading task” (Li, 1997). According to Psychologist and researcher David Ausubel (1967),

“Schema theory has tremendous implications for school classrooms. It is crucial for teachers to realize that students can remember substantial amounts of new information only if they are able to cluster it with their related existing ideas. People forget information if they do not work to integrate it into their existing mental frameworks.”

According to Shuying An (2013) there are three major types of schemata: linguistic, formal and content, all of which correlate to reading comprehension. Linguistic schemata refer to a reader’s existing language proficiency in vocabulary, grammar and jargon. Without it, it may be impossible for the reader to decode and subsequently comprehend the text. Formal schemata are the organizational forms and rhetorical structures of written texts, and readers will us their schematic representations of the text. Lastly, content schemata refer to the background knowledge of the content area. This may include topic familiarity, cultural knowledge, and previous experience with a field (An, 2013).

One assumption that has been made about schema activation is that some words or groups of words or the title of a text are highly suggestive and they may signal a certain schema. For example, textual stimuli may affect a schema in two ways. If a stimulus is highly suggestive of a certain schema, that schema as a whole may be activated. For example, the mention of a police detective may activate a “murder” schema.

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@teacherhead Tom Sherrington also writes about Schema-building: A blend of experiences and retrieval modes make for deep learning and also has the following "Kitchen Pedagogy" video on schemas

Further reading recommendations are indicated with an asterisk. Bailin, S., Case, R., Coombs, J. R., & Daniels, L. B. (1999) Common misconceptions of critical thinking. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 31(3), 269-283. Ball, D. L., Thames, M. H., & Phelps, G. (2008) Content knowledge for teachers: What makes it special? Journal of Teacher Education, 2008 59: 389 DOI: 10.1177/0022487108324554 [Online] Accessible from: Biesta, G. (2009) Good education in an age of measurement: on the need to reconnect with the question of purpose in education. Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability, 21(1). *Coe, R., Aloisi, C., Higgins, S., & Major, L. E. (2014) What makes great teaching. Review of the underpinning research. Durham University: UK. Available at: Cowan, N. (2008) What are the differences between long-term, short-term, and working memory? Progress in brain research, 169, 323-338. Deans for Impact (2015) The Science of Learning [Online] Accessible from: [retrieved 10 October 2018]. Education Endowment Foundation (2018) Improving Secondary Science Guidance Report. [Online] Accessible from: [retrieved 10 October 2018]. Education Endowment Foundation (2018) Preparing for Literacy Guidance Report. [Online] Accessible from: Education Endowment Foundation (2018) Sutton Trust-Education Endowment Foundation Teaching and Learning Toolkit: Accessible from: [retrieved 10 October 2018] Guzzetti, B. J. (2000) Learning counter-intuitive science concepts: What have we learned from over a decade of research? Reading & Writing Quarterly: Overcoming Learning Difficulties, 16, 89 –98. Jerrim, J., & Vignoles, A. (2016) The link between East Asian "mastery" teaching methods and English children's mathematics skills. Economics of Education Review, 50, 29-44. Machin, S., McNally, S., & Viarengo, M. (2018) Changing how literacy is taught: Evidence on synthetic phonics. American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, 10(2), 217–241. Rich, P. R., Van Loon, M. H., Dunlosky, J., & Zaragoza, M. S. (2017) Belief in corrective feedback for common misconceptions: Implications for knowledge revision. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 43(3), 492-501. *Rosenshine, B. (2012) Principles of Instruction: Research-based strategies that all teachers should know. American Educator, 12–20. Scott, C. E., McTigue, E. M., Miller, D. M., & Washburn, E. K. (2018) The what, when, and how of preservice teachers and literacy across the disciplines : A systematic literature review of nearly 50 years of research. Teaching and Teacher Education, 73, 1–13. *Shanahan, T. (2005) The National Reading Panel Report: Practical Advice for Teachers. Accessible from: Sweller, J., van Merrienboer, J. J. G., & Paas, F. G. W. C. (1998) Cognitive Architecture and Instructional Design. Educational Psychology Review, 10(3), 251–296. Willingham, D. T. (2002) Ask the Cognitive Scientist. Inflexible Knowledge: The First Step to Expertise. American Educator, 26(4), 31-33. Accessible from: .

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