Although there is a difference between learning, “the process of acquiring knowledge” and remembering, “the process of recording, storing and retrieving knowledge”, they are symbiotic, the one having little purpose without the other. Which goes someway to explaining why I have written so much about memory over the years. Here is one such example Never forget – improving memory.
In some of these blogs I have referred to the word schema but have not really explored it in much detail, it’s time to put that right.
It’s easy to think that when the brain transfers information from short to long term memory it just sits there floating in a vacuum, waiting for the day it will be needed. But it doesn’t work like that, the brain cannot simply pluck something from this vast space without having structured the information in the first place, effectively having filed it away correctly.
The packets that organise information and make sense of experience are ‘schemas’, the building blocks of cognition. Daniel Goleman
Schema – how information is stored
Schema can be derived from the word’s Greek origin, which means to shape or plan, but it wasnt until 1923 that the child developmental psychologist Jean Piaget used it in the context of learning.
Nine years later Frederic Bartlett described schema in more detail by saying that people organise concepts into mental constructs, models, or frameworks that help them process and remember information. The implication being that when faced with information that fits an existing schema, it will be remembered but if not, it is easily forgotten.
Schemas contribute to our understanding as to how information is stored in the brain and provide insight as to what we can do to learn more effectively. They are built through experience, for example a child may have been told that a cow is an animal that has four legs, eats grass and lives in a field, they may even have seen one. When they next come across a cow, they will associate what they see with that schema and say “cow”. However, if in the next field they see a horse which also has four legs, eats grass and lives in a field, they may believe that is also a cow. It’s at this point the child’s parents intervene by telling the child “No that’s a horse, can you see its taller and runs faster”, this leaves the child with two choices either, build a new schema or adapt the existing one.
Piaget gave us the answer as to what’s happening here, he called it Assimilation and Accommodation. Assimilation is when you make the new information fit with an existing schema for example, the child can adapt their schema by adding – not all animals that live in a field with four legs and eat grass are cows, some are horses. Alternatively, they create a new schema for horses, being fast, tall animals with four legs, that eat grass and live in a field, this is accommodation.
People who do well in maths are those that make connections and see maths as a connected subject.
Jo Boaler, 2014
Chess players use schemas
There is a general assumption that chess players have good memories, which on the face of it is true. But it’s not necessarily an innate ability, they have been building up information of past games and storing them in schemas for years. This is why an expert chess player is able to beat a novice, not because they are processing each move individually, they suffer from cognitive load like everyone else, they are simply accessing past schemas. (Chase & Simon, 1973 et al).
The reason experts remember more is that what novices see as separate pieces of information, experts see as organised sets of ideas. Donovan & Bransford, 2005
How does this help with learning?
If you aware of how your brain stores information you can change the way you study to work with your brain not against it. Below are a few tips you might want to consider.
- Pre-Assessment or subject review – It’s a good idea before starting a new subject to test yourself or review the underpinning content. This is not so much about finding out what you know, although this might be helpful, it reminds you of prior knowledge and schemas that can be adapted to fit the new information you will learn.
- Look for analogies and comparisons – when new information is presented think how this might fit with what you now. For example, if you have already learned about income tax, when you come to capital gains tax ask, what are the differences and similarities. They both fit into the schema of taxation.
- Put Information Into context – when trying to understand something new, consider the context from which it comes, its possible that although the knowledge is new the context is familiar. For example, if you were learning about people who break the law, it might be a good idea to ask yourself in what context you would do this. This could help fit the new information into an existing schema.
- Challenge your existing schemas – like many things’ schemas can be good or bad. Here is a riddle, a father and son have a car accident and are both badly hurt. They are both taken to separate hospitals. When the boy is taken in for an operation, the doctor says ‘I cannot do the surgery because this is my son’. How is this possible?
The answer is of course that the doctor is the son’s mother, but because we have a schema that tells us doctors are male, we get it wrong.
And one last big tip for teachers, inside your head you have created schemas that work, share them with your students, they have probably taken you many years to create making them hugely valuable in terms of knowledge transfer.
For more information here is a really good video that explains Memory Schemas in more detail.