I’ve spent a fair bit of time trying to explain various psychological concepts in a way that is easily grasped by busy teachers and have come to the conclusion that some of my explanations might be worth recording on the blog.

First up is a simple explanation of what a schema is, how it is formed and why this is worth knowing.

Because we have no capacity to introspect our long-term memories no one has any idea what actually happens in there. We know we must have a long-term memory because we can think about something, stop thinking about it and think about it again later. Where does it go in between? We have no idea but this is what we call memory.

A schema is a theoretical construct that is no doubt wrong, but is, hopefully, useful. It can be thought of as an interconnected web of items of knowledge. The ability to retrieve items in memory is dependent on environmental cues and prompts. If I say bread, you say… * The fact that a prompt cues us to retrieve some connected information provides with some logical evidence that schema exist and that we store items we know to be connected together.

Let’s imagine you know only one solitary thing about a subject. This single item is represented by the green dot below. Because it’s not linked to anything else it will be very hard to retrieve. We would have to stumble upon precisely the correct prompt to be able to recall it.

Let’s now imagine that this solitary, unconnected fact is some vocabulary from a foreign language: the phrase ni hao. If this phrase is new to you, it will now be stored somewhere in your long-term memory but will, in all probability, be very hard to recall later. However, if you’ve encountered it before, maybe you remember what it means. Maybe you know it’s Mandarin for ‘hello’. If you do, then the Mandarin phase and its English meaning are stored as two, connected pieces of knowledge:

When I say ni hao, you say ‘hello’. This doubles your chances of retrieving either the Mandarin phrase or its English meaning.

The more Mandarin vocabulary you learn, the easier it becomes to recall every other item within your Mandarin schema:

This is one of the counter-intuitive things about schema – the more items and the greater the number of connections between items, the easier it becomes to draw the entire schema into working memory.

Eventually, you arrive at a point where it becomes automatic and effortless to recall most of the items within a schema and the whole network is thoroughly embedded with other, connected schemas.

If all the dots with the schema represented Mandarin vocabulary, we could, at this stage, say a person was a fluent Mandarin speaker. It turns out that fluent Mandarin speakers never forget how to say ni hao. They don’t bump into acquaintances, shrug sheepishly and say something along the lines of “I’m sorry, but there’s this way of greeting people but I just can’t for the life of me remember what it is.”

This is what it means to be fluent at anything: our ability to draw vast schemas into working memory effortless and automatically means we’re unaware of just how much we know. This is the same for times table knowledge, number bonds, items of grammar, European capital cities, a basic chronology of British history, the ability to drive, or whatever else we might need to effortlessly recall.

If we accept that learning (whatever else it is) is the acquisition of increasingly robust, interconnected schema, and that our role as teachers is to support children in being able to retrieve schemas effortlessly and automatically, it might make everyone’s job a tiny bit easier.

* Most people will say butter, some toast etc. Basically, anything that’s semantically linked in memory.