What are Schema, and why do they need to be Activated?

Have you heard educators and learning theorists talking about “activating the schema” but you didn’t really know what it meant?

“Schema” is a way of talking about the knowledge, ideas and understanding you have in your head and how it is organised. Specifically, it describes the connections between different ideas.

Having heavily interconnected schema is a very powerful way of both remembering new things and applying knowledge in novel ways. In this post, I’ll explain both of these points in more detail.

What are “Schema”?

The brain is like a massive library filled with ideas, knowledge, memories and understanding.

When you learn something new, it has a physical impact on your brain. It’s perhaps a little like adding a new file to the shelves in your head. But the brain is a truly massive library, and often, the things we file away in it get lost. We know it at the time, but later when we need that knowledge again, we can’t retrieve it.

A schema is like a sort of indexing system for the library in your brain. It cross-references knowledge that is related, so that it is easier to retrieve knowledge and understanding that is connected to other bits of information.

The more connected a piece of information is, the easier it is to retrieve. But it’s not only the number of connections that is important; the quality of those connections also matters. There can be countless arbitrary and accidental connections that will not necessarily help you retrieve the information when you need it, and might be more likely to bring it to mind at times when it is irrelevant.

The ideal scenario is when you learn something new and catalogue it perfectly with all of the connections that will make sure you can bring it to the front of your thinking exactly when you need it. So, how do you do that? By activating the right schema when you learn…

Constructing Schema

Schema are networks of ideas.

Whether you are aware of it or not, you are building schema in your head all the time.

No learning happens in isolation, so every new thing you learn makes connections. Those connections depend on your existing knowledge and on the context you learn in.

For example, have you ever been listening to a song on the radio and found yourself suddenly thinking of some random thought from long ago? This can happen if, for example, that music was playing at the time you first had that thought or learned that thing. 

We can refer to these as triggers. One experience triggers another thought, or a whole set of thoughts and ideas.

Many of these triggers are arbitrary, accidental and therefore not very helpful. But triggers can be very powerful if you construct them more intentionally.

This is where activating schema comes in.

Activating Schema

Activating schema is something you can do before you begin learning something. You can prepare yourself for the learning experience by ensuring that you have all of the right things in mind that you want to associate with the thing you are about to learn and also by turning off any distractions that might confuse you later on.

In self-guided learning, this can be as simple as intentionally recalling your existing knowledge or relevant facts before you start learning something new. Ask yourself, what do I already know about this; what have I learned before. Perhaps even jot down some notes from memory.

This will ensure that all of these existing bits of knowledge are present in your mind as you learn the new information, and that will encourage connections to form between the old knowledge and the new. It is a way of making sure you file it in the right place and index it appropriately.

If you’re teaching students, you can conduct an activity before you start the new learning that encourages your students to focus on a particular topic or context first. Ask them to do something using their existing knowledge, or even just have a discussion about it. Then, once their minds are on the right things, introduce the new material.

This process makes the new knowledge more understandable, because it has context, and it means that you will be able to remember it more easily when you need it.

Schema and Working Memory

Another benefit of constructing schema is that it allows you to process more complex ideas by holding the whole schema in your mind rather than trying to remember multiple, discreet ideas. 

Working memory is the part of your brain that holds current information, the information that you are using right now. It might be the name of a person you have just met, a phone number you are calling or the ingredients you need to mix in a recipe.

The problem is, working memory is very limited. If you’re baking a cake that needs a lot of ingredients for the first time, you’ll need to look back at the recipe every couple of ingredients you add to check what’s next, how much and so on. But if you’ve baked that same cake several times, you will eventually be able to make it without reading the recipe. 

That’s because the recipe is now stored in your head as one single item with multiple parts. You can hold the whole recipe in your working memory, rather than having to recall each item one-by-one.

Constructing solid schema is therefore a powerful way to overcome the limitations of working memory. Through well constructed schema and well-established triggers, you can handle incredibly complex thoughts and processes in your working memory, even though research suggests that working memory only has capacity for around four to seven items at any given time.

Using Schema in Your Learning

Hopefully you can now see the value of considering schema in your approach to teaching and learning.

Whenever you want to learn something new, think carefully about how you will want to use that new knowledge in the future. What contexts will it be useful in? What problems will it help you solve? What relationships will it be relevant to?

Then take some time to call up the relevant schema before you start learning. Your existing knowledge will be held in your working memory, and new knowledge that you encounter will be able to integrate directly with that schema, making it easier to understand in the moment and easier to retrieve when needed later on.

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