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Concept of schema theory, one of the cognitivist learning theories, was firstly introduced in 1930s through the work of British psychologist Sir Frederic Bartlett and was further developed in 1970s by American educational psychologist Richard Anderson. Schema theory describes how knowledge is acquired, processed and organized. The starting assumption of this theory is that “very act of comprehension involves one’s knowledge of the world”1). According to this theory, knowledge is a network of mental frames or cognitive constructs called schema (pl. schemata). Schemata organize knowledge stored in the long-term memory.
The term schema is nowadays often used even outside cognitive psychology and refers to a mental framework humans use to represent and organize remembered information. Schemata (“the building blocks of cognition”2)) present our personal simplified view over reality derived from our experience and prior knowledge, they enable us to recall, modify our behavior, or try to predict most likely outcomes of events. According to David Rumelhart3),
Schemata also expand and change in time, due to acquisition of new information, but deeply installed schemata are inert and slow in changing. This could provide an explanation to why some people live with incorrect or inconsistent beliefs rather then changing them. When new information is retrieved, if possible, it will be assimilated into existing schema(ta) or related schema(ta) will be changed (accommodated) in order to integrate the new information. For example: during schooling process a child learns about mammals and develops corresponding schema. When a child hears that a porpoise is a mammal as well, it first tries to fit it into the mammals schema: it's warm-blooded, air-breathing, is born with hair and gives live birth. Yet it lives in water unlike most mammals and so the mammals schema has to be accommodated to fit in the new information.
Schema theory was partly influenced by unsuccessful attempts in the area of artificial intelligence. Teaching a computer to read natural text or display other human-like behavior was rather unsuccessful since it has shown that it is impossible without quite an amount of information that was not directly included, but was inherently present in humans. Research has shown that this inherent information stored in form of schemata, for example:
can cause easier or more difficult text comprehension4), depending on how developed the mentioned schemata are, and weather they are successfully activated.5). According to Brown6), when reading a text, it alone does not carry the meaning a reader attributes to it. The meaning is formed by the information and cultural and emotional context the reader brings through his schemata more than by the text itself. Text comprehension and retention therefore depend mostly on the schemata the reader possesses, among which the content schema should be one of most important, as suggested by Al-Issa7).
Schema theory emphasizes importance of general knowledge and concepts that will help forming schemata. In educational process the task of teachers would be to help learners to develop new schemata and establish connections between them. Also, due to the importance of prior knowledge, teachers should make sure that students have it.
“The schemata a person already possesses are a principal determiner of what will be learned from a new text.”8)
Schema theory has been applied in various areas like:
Explanations of structures of knowledge have been criticized for being rather unclear about what exactly can count as a schema and what does a schema include. The idea of schemata as more complex constructs of memory has also been questioned. Some researchers14) suggest schemata as such are just networks of interacting simple (low-level) units activated at the same time. For example, a classroom schema is formed by simultaneously activated units of a blackboard, desks, chairs and a teacher.
On the other hand, schema theory was the starting point or a component for many other cognitivist theories and theorists like Jean Mandler, David Rumelhart (modes of learning) or Marvin Minsky (frame theory) who have further expanded it's concepts, and was also included in works of many other theorists like Sweller's (cognitive load theory) or Ausubell's (assimilation theory).
Sherwood, D. E, and T. D Lee. Schema theory: critical review and implications for the role of cognition in a new theory of motor learning.” Research quarterly for exercise and sport 74, no. 4: 376–382. 2003.
D'Andrade, Roy G. The development of cognitive anthropology. Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Mandler, Jean Matter. Stories, Scripts, and Scenes: Aspects of Schema Theory. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., Publishers, 365 Broadway, Hillsdale, NJ 07642, 1984.
Minsky's frame system theory. In Proceedings of the 1975 workshop on Theoretical issues in natural language processing, 104–116. TINLAP '75. Stroudsburg, PA, USA: Association for Computational Linguistics, 1975.
Mandler, J. M. The foundations of mind: The origins of conceptual thought. New York: Oxford University Press. 2004.
Bartlett, F.C. Remembering: A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. 1932.