Using Schemata in Education

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  • 0:01 Learning
  • 0:58 Schema
  • 2:13 Schemata in Education
  • 5:12 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Think about all the things that you know about. In this lesson, we'll examine schemata, or ideas about things that you know, and how they relate to education, including what teachers should do to use schemata with their students.


John loves to learn new things. He's fascinated by the world around him and is constantly trying to figure out things. His mom loves to watch him solve puzzles or learn new things.

Learning is the process of acquiring new knowledge or skills. People do this naturally. Take John: he learns new things all the time in very natural ways. For example, he has noticed that the leaves on the trees in his backyard change color and fall off in the autumn. Just by looking around, he's learned something new about trees and the fall season.

But learning can also be taught. For example, when John goes to school, his teachers explain new things to him. They help him realize that not all trees have leaves that change color.

How can teachers teach students like John the best way possible? Let's look at the use of schemata in education, and how it can impact student learning.


Learning shapes the way we understand the world around us. John has learned that the leaves change color in the fall, which helps him understand that when the leaves are bright orange, it's fall.

A schema (whose plural form is schemata) is a general idea about something. For example, when John understands that leaves change color in the fall, he has a schema about leaves and fall.

Learning involves forming schemata. When John learns that white and red make pink, or that houses have windows and doors and roofs, he is forming schemata.

But learning also involves revising our schemata. For example, when John was very little, his next door neighbor had a dog. John formed a schema about animals: 4-legged, furry animals are called dogs, like his neighbor's dog.

Then, one day, John and his mother were visiting a friend and John saw a 4-legged furry animal. 'Dog!' he said.

'No,' John's mother said, 'that's a cat.'

John's schema of 4-legged, furry animals was limited, but through his mother's correction, he learned something new. He was able to revise his schema to include both dogs and cats.

Schemata in Education

You may be thinking that all that makes sense, but you might still be wondering what that has to do with teaching. How, specifically, do schemata relate to the way a teacher teaches?

Schemata can help children learn and remember things better. By relating new information to their existing schemata, children are building on what they already know and creating new understandings. This has been shown to lead to better retention.

So, how can teachers help students relate a new piece of information to an existing schema? There are three key elements that must be present in teaching in order for this to happen.

1. Activate prior knowledge. If a teacher wants to use a child's existing schema in a lesson, the teacher must first activate the schema. That is, they should make the child think about what they already know and believe about the topic being studied. For example, if John's teacher is going to teach him about the difference between dogs and cats, she might start by asking him what he knows about dogs and cats.

It is important to activate prior knowledge because it allows teachers to know what the students' schemata are, and if they are correct. For example, if John's teacher asks him what he knows about dogs and cats, and John says that cats have wings and feathers, she knows that his schema about cats is incorrect.

2. Link new information to old. The other reason that it's important to activate prior knowledge is because the second element in teaching using schemata is to link new information to old information. Without activating prior knowledge, this can't happen.

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