Introducing “Schema Theory”

In the last few years, I’ve increasingly wondered if “schema theory” just might work a special kind of magic.

If I understand it right (and if it’s true), then schema theory unites two distinct topics:

the cognitive science behind good teaching, and

the curriculum.

Because that result would be, ahem, SPECTACULAR, the theory merits careful attention.

In this post, I’ll try to explain:

What schema theory is,

Why teachers should care, and

What its limitations seem to be.

I’m thinking of this post as the first of a series: I hope to flesh out this concept more substantially over time.

What Is Schema Theory?

Schema theory models the mental structure of knowledge.

In other words: if I say that I know something, schema theory tells me what that knowledge might look and act like in the mind.

This theory rests on two key points.

First: a schema comprises a vast, interconnected web of declarative and procedural knowledge.

So, if I say “I know what a ‘pet’ is,” I’m claiming to have a “pet” schema. That schema includes declarative/procedural knowledge:

Specific animals: dog, cat, goldfish, hamster.

Concepts, like “tame” or “belongs inside the home.”

Procedures, like “take for a walk” or “clean the litterbox.”

Second: in those schema, the bits of knowledge function together fluentlywhich is to say automatically.

If I tell a friend that I’ve gotten a new pet, she would IMMEDIATELY know a) that I’m talking about a particular group of animals, b) that my furniture might be in peril, and c) that our early morning walks might be disrupted if I’m bringing a dog along.

She doesn’t have to stop and think her way through all those pieces. They spring instantly to mind, because she has activated the “pet”schema.

Similarly, if I told her I’d gotten a pet lion, she would IMMEDIATELY think

“Lions aren’t typically pets!”

“I wouldn’t want a lion inside my house!!”

“I wonder who has to clean THAT litterbox!!!”

Those thoughs all happen unprompted because I’ve violated the “pet” schema, and she’s trying to make “lion” fit into it.

To review these two key points:

LOTS of intricately connected declarative and procedural information,


That’s a (very basic definition of a) schema.

Why Teachers Should Care About Schema

Two reasons (at least).


We teachers often struggle to identify our goal. Do we want our students to…

… achieve today’s learning objective?

… demonstrate proficiency in the curriculum?

… meet the state standards?

If yes, which of these goals takes priority?

In my view, the concept of “schema” brings all those goals together.

When students build effective and useful schema, they unite granular bits (say, “learning objectives”) into larger coherent and fluent wholes (say, “the curriculum” as a way of meeting “state standards”).

In other words, no matter which way we think about students’ acadecmic and curricular progress, we can talk about “schema.” Conversations that once seemed fragmented and incoherent can come together into a complex, thoughtful whole.


Cognitive science helps us understand the strategies that most effectively build schema.

How do we get all those small bits (“cat, dog, clean litterbox, tame, not lion”) to fit together so they operate fluentely as a whole (“pet”)?

Well, let’s talk about working memory. And retrieval practice. And generative learning. And desirable difficulties. And…

In other words:

We can use the same conceptual structure (“schema theory”) to unite the content we want to teach with cognitive science.

We’ve got one big framework that captures both curriculum and pedagogy.

That’s (potentially) AMAZING AND HELPFUL.

 Just imagine how clarifying such conversations could be.

What Are the Limitations of Schema Theory?

In a word: research. As far as I can tell, we ain’t got much.

When I ask about the research basis for schema theory — asking for a “research basis” is a hobby of mine — I get incomplete answers.

Some folks refer me to scholars who wrote in the 1950s (or 1930s). That’s an interesting theoretical basis, but it isn’t current psychology research.

Others point to individual studies here and there. (Anderson 1983 gets a lot of attention.) But those individual studies — in my view — don’t (yet) remotely add up to strong support for the theory.

One scholar I spoke with responded with this question: “well, how would you research the theory? What study would you do?”

That’s an important question…but in this field we focus on research-based assertions. We can’t simply wave away the need for research.

I’ve been trying to make sense of this research field in recent months; I’m currently working with a friend to organize it all.

So, here’s the conundrum I face:

Schema theory could be spectacularly useful.

We don’t seem to have lots of research making a strong case for the theory (although LOTS of people act as if we do).

Of course, at Learning and the Brain, we’re ALL ABOUT the research. Until I see more, I’m always hesitant to espouse the theory — no matter how useful — too strongly.

Some Additional (Unrelated) Notes


Oddly, schema theory lives a double life.

In Britain, it’s old news. I believe they went through a “schema theory” phase 20 years ago, and now Brits (well, Brits on eduTwitter, anyway) talk about schemas as if we all know what they are.

In the US, almost no one talks about them at all. (I am, as far as I know, the only person in Learning-and-the-Brain world to do so regularly).


Technically speaking, the plural of “schema” is “schemata” (think “stigma/stigmata”). Very few people actually use that word. Some say “schemas.” Others use “schema” as both singular and plural.


If you know from schema theory, you’re quite possible vexed that this post is so inadequate.

I haven’t linked to Dr. Efrat Furst’s specatularly useful website. I haven’t linked to Sarah Cottingham’s immensely helpful blog post.

I’ve even left out the famous restaurant example — everyone’s go to for explaining a schema.

This frustration has merit, because I’ve barely introduced a complex (and potentially vitally important) topic.

If you have studies you want to share, books to recommend, websites to laud, PLEASE let me know.

I’ll keep working out my thinking, and I’m hoping you’ll help me along the way.

tags: category: L&B Blog

3 Responses to Introducing “Schema Theory”

  1. andrew watson says:

    From reader Anne Fensie:

    “Schemas rule!

    This is a great review of the brain structures involved in schema formation and activation:
    Gilboa, A., & Marlatte, H. (2017). Neurobiology of schemas and schema-mediated memory. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 21(8), 618–631.

    This article offers some lab experiments on rats to understand schemata:
    Tse, D., Langston, R. F., Kakeyama, M., Bethus, I., Spooner, P. A., Wood, E. R., Witter, M. P., & Morris, R. G. M. (2007). Schemas and memory consolidation. Science, 316(5821), 76–82.

    This article provides a chronology of schema theory and situates it within literacy learning:
    McVee, M. B., Dunsmore, K., & Gavelek, J. R. (2005). Schema theory revisited. Review of Educational Research, 75(4), 531–566.

    This article uses computer programming learning to support schema theory:
    Van Merriënboer, J. J. G., & Paas, F. G. W. C. (1990). Automation and schema acquisition in learning elementary computer programming: Implications for the design of practice. Computers in Human Behavior, 6(3), 273–289.

    In a somewhat related area, Koedinger et al. developed a framework of knowledge components that include schemata:
    Koedinger, K. R., Corbett, A. T., & Perfetti, C. (2012). The Knowledge-Learning-Instruction Framework: Bridging the science-practice chasm to enhance robust student learning. Cognitive Science, 36(5), 757–798.

    If you come across any other great resources, please share!”

  2. Andrew Watson says:

    from Tim Blesse
    “Thank you for breaking open a discussion on this blog about this “Holy Grail” of Education. Within the Science Education Community in the United States, I would point to some interesting work done by two people Page Keeley (Understanding Student Ideas in Science Series) and Patrick Brown ( Sequence Matters Series ). They have taken a research informed approach to improving science instruction by considering the role of preconceptions, cognitive dissonance, the correct sequencing of exploration vs. explanation to designing effective instruction that creates durable & transferrable cognitive schema.”

  3. Andrew Watson says:

    from reader Patrick Brown:

    “Andrew, I love the ideas presented on schema thinking and this is exactly what I’m trying to develop in my work. What spoke to me most early on in your blog was the combination between cognitive sciences and curriculum. In terms of curriculum, I advocate for an instructional sequence called “explore-before-explain,” which is all about using students’ ideas and background experiences as assets to learning and having students do explorations that produce data that serve as evidence for initial sensemaking. With students constructed claims in mind, teachers can draw on the Standards to ensure they are addressing grade-appropriate content and introduce academic vocabulary in light of students’ learning by doing. Interestingly, explore-before-explain is not the typical model in the US and other countries. Most teachers start with a lecture, then allow students to confirm what they heard in lab experiences, and finally practice these ideas through worksheets, etc…I’d argue that most students do not have the schema needed to meaningfully make sense of ideas presented in by a lecture first model without first-hand experiences.

    You mention that you face a conundrum. I might suggest looking at the research on student learning through the 5Es (as well as the learning cycle) compared to traditional instruction. I think it might help your case and when students are engaged in meaningful learning and develop thinking patterns about science (combination of content with practices) before focusing on terminology, they have long-lasting understanding, higher motivation, and achievement.”

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