A cognitive schema is a cognitive framework that organizes information about the world around us. It is a packet of information in our brain that categorizes objects and concepts into groups.
Our brains like to group things based on common features. We call this a schema. Having schema in our mind makes it easier for us to identify new objects and try to define them based on our existing knowledge of similar objects and concepts.
For example, you might see a raspberry and know it’s a berry due to its similarities to strawberries and mulberries. Here, you’re using your berry schema.
Othe examples of cognitive schema explored in this article include:
- Car vs Bus (An object schema)
- Learning gender roles (A role schema)
- Differentiating between seasons (An event schema)
- Learning about personal aptitudes (A self-schema)
In the context of education, schemata (schemata is the plural of schema) are constantly being formed and altered as teachers present new information to students. Every academic subject consists of hundreds of concepts that must be committed to memory and retrieved for processing later.
Definition of Schema
Swiss cognitive psychologist Jean Piaget relied on the concept of the schema to help formulate his theory of cognitive development. He defined a schema as:
“A repeatable action sequence, possessing component actions that are tightly interconnected and governed by core meaning” (1952, p. 7).
Children have a natural proclivity to explore their environment and engage in repetitive behavior. According to Piaget, this is so they can add information to their existing schema and continuously develop new ones. These processes are referred to as assimilation and accommodation.
There are many types of cognitive schemata, including those for objects, play, people, social dynamics, roles, events, and the self. Some common types are:
- Object Schema – We learn about objects by categorizing them based on similar properties.
- Role Schema – We learn about social roles and occupations such as gender roles, teachers, students, doctors, and so on.
- Person Schema – We learn about the people around us, what their personalities are like, and who they are.
- Self-Schema – We learn about ourselves and what our personal likes, dislikes, traits, and aptitudes are.
- Event Schema – We learn about what happens and how to behave during various events. These develop and get more complex as we are exposed to more events.
1. Horse vs Cow
Type: Object schema
Some of the earliest schemata we develop are based upon farm animals. We learn about them from songs and toys. But children also need to improve their schemata to differentiate between animals that appear similar to a child.
For example, a child may see a cow and say “Look! A Horse!” Here, the child’s schema of ‘horse’ is likely based on the fact it’s a rather large animal with four legs that hangs out in a paddock.
But the parent then corrects the child: “No, honey, it’s a cow. See, it has a short neck and an udder!
The child needs to then split their horse schema into two in a process called accommodation. Now, they have two separate and more sophisticated schemata: one for horse, and one for cow.
2. Bee vs Fly
Type: Object schema
Just like horse vs cow, children need to learn the difference between a bee and a fly. But in this example, we also have an element of danger!
For example, a child may think a bee and a fly are the same thing. Then, one day, a ‘fly with stripes’ bites them on the arm! Suddenly, the child starts to learn that there is a difference between a black fly and a stripy bee.
They also learn not to be afraid of flies and that they should probably avoid bees.
Many of the schemata we develop in childhood are linked to pain and danger. We’re programmed to learn to avoid danger and we learn this as a priority. So, things like bees and hot plates are some early schemata we develop.
3. Man vs Woman (And Gender Roles)
Type: Role schema
A gender schema refers to a person’s beliefs about a woman and a man. This schema also incorporates normative understandings of gender roles. By changing these schemata, we can develop a more equal world.
For many decades now, scholars, educators, and social activists have been concerned about the lack of gender equality in the sciences. The presence of women in science and tech-based professions has long been unbalanced compared to their male counterparts.
From a sociological perspective, one reason for this disparity is because many cultures, the West included, have well-defined roles for women and men. These gender roles are well-known, even among young children, and have a significant impact on how students form their self-schema, or gender schema.
The gender schema for girls and boys are comprised of different components; boys are supposed to be interested in science and technology, and girls are supposed to be interested in social endeavors.
These gender schemas guide student choice in curricula and eventually lead to the underrepresentation of women in science and tech-based professions.
4. Car vs Bus
Type: Object schema
We will see a young child looking out the window of their car pointing out vehicles: car, bus, truck! Here, children are learning to differentiate between vehicles, and in so doing, are creating early object schemata.
Parents will often model early language using simple nouns like “car”, “bus”, and “truck”. In these early stages of language development, simple nouns can help children develop their basic and foundational object schemata.
It may require some repetition, however, before children develop an understanding of the differences between vehicles. Instead of simply repeating the terms and pointing, we can help them by pointing out the individual differences between each vehicle so children can more accurately assign them to object schema in their minds.
5. Learning About Personal Likes and Dislikes
Your self-schema is your understanding of who you are. A child slowly develops their self-schema as they develop more experiences and learn about their likes, dislikes, and abilities.
For example, if you were to try a new meal and realize that you don’t like that particular food, then you develop a sense of your liked and dislikes as it pertains to food. Here, you may develop a self-schema such as “I’m a person who doesn’t like to eat meat” or “I don’t like spicy food.” This becomes part of how you see and classify yourself.
Similarly, you may learn that you like math and don’t like history. At this point, you’re refining and improving your own self-schema.
6. Schema for Broke and Not-Broke
Type: Object schema
One of the earliest schemas that very young children form centers on the concept of “broke” or “not-broke”. In a way, this is not surprising because children spend a lot of time trying to break things.
Children have a very solid understanding of what constitutes a whole object. When they encounter an object that is not whole, then it violates their schema for that object.
When that schema is violated, it immediately creates a state of confusion, and sometimes mild panic. Often times they will take the object to a trusted caregiver with the intention of that person fixing the object. That will restore the child’s schema and also restore their sense that the world is right (we call this returning to ‘cognitive equilibrium’).
7. Understanding Where Food Comes From
Type: Object schema
Initially, most children will have a very simple schema for food: food is for eating. Teachers try to improve a child’s schema of food by teaching them about the origins of food. This will improve their understanding of what food really is.
The food on our table actually has a long history. This history starts with a seed on a farm. That seed is cared for and nurtured using resources from the environment. When the food is ready, it is harvested, processed to some degree, then transported to a local supermarket.
There it is chosen by customers, brought home, processed again (in the form of cooking, sometimes), and then placed on the dinner table for consumption.
When educating children about food, the goal is for students’ schema of food to transform from one that is very simplistic, to one that is much more complex. We want students to understand that a seed creates food, for example, and that food in the supermarket comes from a farm.
8. Instilling a Growth Mindset
Schemata are not just about objects. They’re also about concepts. One concept we have is around what we can and can’t do. To help children progress, we need to change their self-concept schema from a limiting self-belief to a growth mindset.
Most students, especially younger ones, can get frustrated very easily. If they try a task, can’t do it, then they instantly want to quit…or cry, depending on the age. That is a big problem. Academic subjects are becoming increasingly complex, not simpler.
In terms of a schema, the student has a self-schema for their ability to learn. It consists of trying to do something and if you don’t succeed, it means you can’t do it. So, teachers try to alter that self-schema by helping students understand that learning means trying, trying again, and to keep trying.
That’s very similar to what a lot of grandparents used to say to their children. Only today, this is called a “growth mindset”: the belief that a person’s abilities can improve over time.
So, educators want their students to develop a growth mindset as part of their self-schema.
9. Building Schema by Exploring Surroundings
Toddlers and very young learners love to explore their environments. In a kindergarten classroom, this can involve students touching everything they see, using objects for all kinds of imaginative purposes, and trying to run out of the classroom whenever the teacher is not looking.
These are natural behaviors of children trying to form new schemas and expand their existing ones. Their minds are relatively blank because of their limited experience, so nearly every object they encounter they don’t have a schema for. That’s when the teacher’s role is activated.
The child might hold up a newly discovered object so the teacher can see it. At that moment, the teacher will usually say the name of that object and, in this moment, the very beginnings of a schema for that object are formed.
10. When a Magazine is not an iPad
No schema is perfect. This can lead to some hilarious moments when students need to assimilate new information to create new and more complex schemata.
Take this scenario for example: at home, a child sometimes plays with their parent’s iPad. It has some fun games and all the child has to do is press a few icons on the screen. That makes the pictures change or the name of the object being said aloud.
Then one day at school the teacher spreads several magazines out on the playroom. The goal is to provide tactile stimulation and practice coordinating hand movements by turning pages. But, because one child has never seen a magazine before, they start poking at the pictures with their finger.
Of course, nothing happens. The child’s schema for an iPad was activated when they saw the magazine. But because the magazine is not an iPad, the child must now accommodate this information and form a new schema, for magazine.
This is also a great example of how play-based learning help students develop schemata.
11. Things that are Red
Type: Object schema
One of the first red foods a child might taste is a strawberry. The caregiver will say “strawberry” aloud and that is the first schema the child will form for that item.
When at school, a teacher prepares a lesson about the color red. The lesson includes a number of red objects placed in a tub. The objects are of various shapes and sizes.
At first, this explosion of visual stimuli may be overwhelming for some children, or, a very exciting smorgasbord of temptation.
The kids are allowed to play freely and explore the items freely. One child might think that all the objects are strawberries because they’re red!
However, as you teach them about the objects, their schema for “red object” will go through the process of assimilation and accommodation. If the teacher says the name of each object while the child is playing with it, they will form a schema for that object that consists of a visual image and a word, and differentiate that new object from their original concept of the object being a strawberry.
12. The Student/Teacher Roles Schema
Type: Role schema
We usually think of a schema as applying to objects or educational concepts, but they also have role schemas. For example, the role of a teacher and the role of a student.
When very young children first enter a school setting, sometimes they will need to form a new role schema for what a student is supposed to do and what a teacher is supposed to do.
For kids that are spoiled at home, this can be quite a shock. They are used to getting their way and when they ask/tell adults what they want, they usually get it. So, when they first see their new teacher, the first schema that gets activated in their mind is “there’s another big person that will do what I say.”
The teacher will then help that child understand that in the classroom, the roles are different; students follow instructions, not give them.
13. Christmas vs Graduation Ceremonies
Type: Event schema
Every school will hold several special events each year. There are Christmas Shows, music recitals, and of course, graduation ceremonies. A young child might enter a graduation ceremony in the same hall as the Christmas show took place and say “Christmas Show!” Here, the child’s schema will need to be changed.
The child’s mother might say “It’s not the Christmas show. Let’s see how we know that. Look at the walls. See there is no tinsel? There’s no Christmas tree. Santa isn’t here.”
As the mother shows the difference between the Christmas show and the graduation ceremony, the child’s original schema about Christmas show will become more nuanced and they will create a new schema for the graduation ceremony.
Each event will also serve the purpose of teaching kids how to act in different situations. For example, the child may learn that they need to be quiet during a graduation ceremony but can sing during a Christmas show. Here, they’re learning to integrate social norms into their schemata.
A schema involving events rather than objects is called an event schema. Over the course of a child’s academic journey, they will develop many event schemas that will also be valuable throughout adulthood.
14. The Entire Educational Continuum
In many ways, the entire educational continuum, from kindergarten to doctoral study, is a prolonged process of schemata assimilation and accommodation.
Students enter a kindergarten with just a few hundred schemata, and each one is quite basic and one-dimensional. However, as one progresses through the grades, new schemata are formed and many existing schemata become increasingly complex.
Some of those schemata are so complex that they can take years of advanced graduate study to develop. Even after all of that time and effort, as a scientist continues to study a very specific topic, the world’s understanding of that subject also evolves and changes over time. Sometimes over decades… even centuries.
15. Learning the Seasons
Type: Event schema
In early childhood, we often take children outside to see the seasons pass. We might go and play with fallen leaves during autumn and snow during winter.
In each of these outdoor learning opportunities, children are refining their understanding of seasons. In fact, a child’s first assumption may be that there are two unnamed seasons (hot and cold). Then, as we teach them about the transitional seasons, they need to break apart their seasons to develop four distinct schemata.
For each season, they learn to differentiate them by looking at cues in the environment: heat, snow, leaves on trees, and baby ducks in ponds.
Schema Development: Assimilation, Accommodation & Cognitive Equilibrium
Jean Piaget, father of cognitive development theories, argues that schema are developed through processes of assimilation and accommodation.
According to Piaget, people come across challenges and problems that destabilize someone’s existing understanding of a schema. To return to cognitive equilibrium (a state of understanding), we undergo assimilation or accommodation.
Through assimilation, we add new information to an existing schema. For example, a child may see two dogs and learn that one is a labrador and one is a pug. The schema ‘dog’ doesn’t need to be broken up, but new information needs to be added to this schema to make it clearer.
The child adds new knowledge into the existing schema to make it more complex.
Through accommodation, we break-up flawed schema. For example, if a child points at a cat and says ‘dog’, they’ve made a mistake. They can’t simply add new information to the dog schema. They need to create a whole new one: the cat schema!
Without schemata, information about the world around us would be unorganized and unusable. Bits of information would simply bounce around our minds like kernels in a pop-corn machine, random and unpredictable. Academic study would be impossible. Progress in science, technology, or any other field of study simply wouldn’t occur.
Fortunately, someone invented the school. Ever since, human beings have engaged in a lengthy educational process that involves the continuous assimilation and accommodation of schemata. Children begin school with very rudimentary schemata that will be shaped and formed by their teachers every day, for decades.
As we progress through the educational continuum, we can reach a point at which we are capable of inventing amazing gadgets, medical procedures, and technology so incredible that it allows us to travel to other planets…soon.
Agosto, D. (2004). Using Gender Schema Theory to Examine Gender Equity in Computing: A Preliminary Study. Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering, 10, 37. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1615/JWomenMinorScienEng.v10.i1.30
Lips, H. M. (1995). Through the lens of mathematical/scientific self-schemas: Images of students’ current and possible selves 1. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 25(19), 1671–1699.
Louis, S., Featherstone, S., Macgraw, L., Hayes, L., & Beswick, C. (2013). Understanding schemas in young children: Again! Again! London: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC.
Piaget, J. (1952). The origins of intelligence in children. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co. doi: https://doi.org/10.1037/11494-000