Schema Building: beyond Piaget and into the classroom

Paul Cline, Ipswich School

Paul Cline explains the significance of Schema formation and what it means for classroom practitioners.

What are schemas?

Imagine you are travelling abroad by plane. You book a taxi to take you to the airport. When you arrive you find a trolley to carry your luggage and then go look for the check-in desk. You’ll have your passport and tickets at the ready and get given a boarding pass. You’ll drop your luggage off, go through security, and then see how long you can eke out the remaining time browsing in duty-free. Regardless of where you are going, with which airline and from which airport, the story is going to be pretty much the same. If you’ve travelled by plane a few times, you’ve developed a pretty strong schema for airports and plane travel (and even people who haven't will do so if they read about it in books and see it in films and television). 

A schema is a mental model of connected ideas or concepts stored in long-term memory that has a particular significance for the development of long-term memories. You might have learned about these if you've studied the work of Swiss Child psychologist Jean Piaget but it’s possible you’ve not really thought (or learned) about them since, or considered how they might apply to classroom teaching. However, they form a cornerstone of Cognitive Science, which has contributed much to the discourse around classroom pedagogy recently.

According to Piaget, knowledge is built through the adaptation of schemas (or schemata) through processes such as assimilation (we add new information to an existing schema) or accommodation (we change our pre-existing schema in light of new information, or create new schemas). There are different types of schemas, so when you think about air travel you automatically activate a range of related ideas including the process of travelling by plane (procedural schemas), but also myriad facts related to planes, airports or travel in general (declarative schemas). 

Schemas allow us to deal with the world more efficiently by having this mental structure comprised of automated chunks of knowledge. If you decide to go on holiday you know what to expect, even if it’s an airport you’ve never been to, or an airline you’ve never flown with. If someone else has a roughly similar schema for something then there will be shared understanding which means we don’t have to keep explaining everything to each other all of the time.

Schemas are the building blocks of knowledge, and our job as teachers is as much to help students build their own schemas as anything else. As subject experts we hold large, complex and rich schemas in our minds which we need to expose, disentangle and make sense of to our students. Psychologists have shown that what makes us subject experts isn’t because we are just better at it, it’s because we just have huge amounts of knowledge already stored in long-term memory (eg Simon, 1973). Prior knowledge is also key predictor of learning; new information is easier to understand and remember if it can be connected to what we already know (eg Recht & Leslie, 1983).


What does this mean for teaching?

Understanding the role of schemas has clear applications to our classrooms. I will consider three different ideas in more detail here, with an example of an application for each:

Idea and Application

Connecting new information to what students already know > Advance organisers 

Building understanding of conceptual ideas > Examples and non-examples

Assessing the content and organisation of students’ schemas > Multiple choice questions


Connect new information to what they already know

Having clear schemas means that students understand not only the ideas themselves, but their relationship with each other. Everything slots into place, forming rich, interconnected webs of knowledge in long-term memory. Therefore setting each new set of content in its place is key. I’ve been using advance organisers* for some time to help with this. These are often diagrammatic (although lists and tables work too) and help students to see the overview of what they are learning and where the current material fits within the bigger picture.

Advance Organisers
Advance Organisers


This is an example I’ve created for the Criminal Psychology topic. It’s important to note that the first time I show this I would animate it to allow me to introduce and explain each section at a time, slowly building up the bigger picture. After that, I show it at some point pretty much every lesson and often use it as a prompt for some retrieval practice activities.

Being able to root new learning in what they already know makes new content more easily understood and remembered (for more on the use of advance organisers I’d highly recommend teacher & author David Goodwin’s post here). 

*These are not the same thing as Knowledge Organisers which are far more detailed and serve a different purpose.


Building understanding of conceptual ideas

I’m sure most teachers use examples to teach new concepts; we all have what we think of as a perfect example we use for a particular topic that we’re sure helps make the abstract concrete, and brings a concept to life for students. And until relatively recently I’d have presumed that this was enough to help my students learn. But the problem with this approach is that one example just isn’t enough. 

Examples rely on domain-specific prior knowledge

It may be that the specific example relies on some wider prior knowledge which the students don’t have. For example, I always used to introduce the concept of validity in relation to the well known Ronseal TM advertising slogan (“Does exactly what it says on the tin”) until I realised that it wasn’t as well known as I thought; most students had never seen the advert so I just had to explain that as well too. My example made things less clear because I was adding extraneous, irrelevant material. 

Single examples are not sufficient to clarify conceptual ideas

Students may be confused about the underlying conceptual ideas because they focus on the surface features of the example. For example if you only refer to Romeo & Juliet when teaching students about Shakespearean tragedies then they might wrongly presume that a tragedy must include an ill-fated love story.

Examples need to be contrasted with non-examples

Students may not fully grasp what else should be in the same category or group as the original example. Letting students see the ‘boundary conditions’ of a particular idea or concept by exposing them to multiple things which do or don’t fit the category is a much more concrete way for them to truly learn the distinction between different concepts. Using the Shakespeare example again, providing a list of Shakespearean tragedies as well as comedies and dramas, and highlighting which is which, will help them generate a more global conception of what the category ‘tragedy’ actually means than a mere definition or list of criteria would alone.

Assessing the content and organization of students’ schemas

Since new learning is mediated by prior knowledge, determining what students know is important before we decide to move on. It’s also important to find out, as much as possible, how students' knowledge is organised to identify any significant misconceptions or problems before they get too deeply ingrained. A well designed multiple choice question (MCQ) can be really valuable here.

Good MCQs require that students have to think hard about which is the correct answer; the distractor options should be both plausible and related to the sorts of typical misconceptions that students have in their knowledge (if you’re familiar with the quiz show “Who wants to be a millionaire” then think of this as the million pound question, not the £500 question). For example, here is a question I might ask my Psychology students:

Which of these neurotransmitters is primarily associated with aggression?

  1. Serotonin
  2. Amygdala
  3. Testosterone
  4. Dopamine
  • The correct answer is (1) but the incorrect answers might all tell me something useful about what a student knows, and how that knowledge is organised.
  • Option (2) - Amygdala tells me that their schema is incredibly limited and poorly organised because they haven’t learned the fundamental distinction between brain structures and brain chemicals
  • Option (3) tells me that that they haven’t learned to adequately distinguish between different types of brain chemicals - in this case hormones vs neurotransmitters (OR it tells me that they didn’t read the question properly, saw the word aggression and leapt on testosterone - this is still pretty useful to know!)
  • Option (4) tells me that they have correctly identified a neurotransmitter (as opposed to a hormone) but haven’t learned the right one yet

Of course, it’s also possible that they just guessed and having a strategy to determine that is useful here too (in class mine typically answer on mini-whiteboards so I might get them to just put a ? next to their answer if it’s a guess). Either way, once you have your responses, taking time to unpack both the correct and incorrect answers is useful in helping to figure out what they currently think, and correct or reinforce their conceptual understanding.

Final thoughts on Schema Building

I don’t pretend that the strategies I’ve outlined here are in any way revolutionary; many teachers will be familiar with and use them already. But I think seeing the underpinning connections, the importance of trying to help students build strong schemas, provides a useful mental structure (a schema!) in which to consider how best to help our students learn. Cognitive processes remain hidden inside our mind and this makes them abstract for students (and teachers) to understand. The human mind is a complex place and understanding a few basic principles of cognition can have a significant impact in the classroom.