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Is schema theory the answer to gaps in knowledge for both students and staff?

Written by: Kirsty Rogerson
8 min read

At present, the learning gap is something that is of great focus in schools. While cognitive strategies and retrieval practice are embedded parts of teaching, how much are these strategies explicitly taught to students from a meta-cognitive angle? In focusing on schema theory as a particular strand of cognitive science, we can form specific strategies and resources that are geared towards it. For example, do we use acronyms for guiding writing or could we use meta-cognitive questioning which specifically triggers strong schematic connections? Furthermore, how much do staff consider their personal schemas when addressing curriculum design, pedagogy and subject knowledge?

Drawing on schema theory, a branch of cognitive science concerned with how the brain constructs knowledge, and the study of English in secondary schools, I aim to combine both scientific schemas and pedagogy to present a new perspective when tackling learning gaps in schools. Beginning at the heart of the English classroom, we will be able to see just how much schema theory can impact on numerous elements of the successful implementation and retrieval of knowledge in schools.

When considering why we teach English, Didau (2021, p. 11) suggests that we teach students English so that they can join and contribute to ‘the conversation of mankind’, and ‘to enlarge and extend children’s capacity to think about the world’. Not only are both motives deeply important for the classroom, but they are also paramount to students’ ability ‘to be able to critique from a position of knowledge’ (Didau, 2021, p. 12).

This reflection will explore the importance of thinking and self-questioning using schematic theory, both literary and cognitive, to provide a potential key to unlocking deeper, more individual thinking in our students. First, I will discuss what elements of the English classroom naturally lend themselves to independent, critical thought. Secondly, I will highlight key elements of schematic theory to underpin a schematic approach to classroom pedagogy. Overall, I am hoping to draw on metacognitive strategies and classroom culture to present a refreshing, cognitive approach to learning.

When students are presented with a problem or stumbling block during the learning process, it is more than likely that they will instantly seek help from the expert in the room: the teacher. Another likely event following this action will be the expert responding with a singular question or a succession of questions guiding the student to their desired answer or solution. This leads us to wonder where the answer had been the whole time: was it irretrievably embedded in the student’s mind to the point where only expert questioning could entice it out? Or was it solely from the expert guidance that this student was able to formulate a response? Perhaps we might suggest that it is a fascinating blend of the two.

This atypical style of classroom discourse, wherein a student asks a question and the teacher responds with the answer or another question, is not unfamiliar to teachers. However, what seems to be missing is the understanding of the process that happens between student inquiry, teacher response and finding the solution. This leads me to my exploration of schema and metacognition in the classroom.

Schematic theory

In its broadest sense, schema theory is often defined as a label for a broad range of knowledge structures (Emmott and Alexander, 2014). Schema is also referred to as a ‘frame’ (Minsky, 1975) to discuss mental representations of objects, settings or situations (Emmott and Alexander, 2014).

An English teacher will always desire to quickly gauge the schemata, or prior knowledge, of the students in their classes so that any text read in the class will be understood via schematic triggers. For example if we were to read a text situated in a wedding hall, we would expect that students would immediately draw upon their schematic knowledge of an atypical wedding (white dress, groom, cake, aisle) in order to achieve natural comprehension. Reading usually occurs when the text creates a fusion with the mind of a reader: without the reader, the text is simply a text; with a reader, the text can live and breathe (Rosenblatt and Booth, 2005). However, those without schematic understanding of a text will most likely be the first ones with a look of confusion on their faces or their hands waving in the air for teacher input.

Each person who reads a text creates their own individual schema – a mental map – of that text and their interpretation of it (Elliot, 2021). It is the idea of the ‘mental map’ that is of interest to me – how exactly do we guide students to construct, and continue to strengthen, their ‘mental maps’ to access deeper, wider and higher-level thinking? This is where we can draw on metacognition and how it can transform our learners from being co-dependent on teacher input to being independent thinkers. While many educators are experienced and informed when it comes to helping those in front of us learn, how much do we actually consider our own ‘mental maps’ and schema strength during our own study and CPD? The more that we, as educators, explore the process of merging elements of our knowledge to the point of independent thought, the more we can inform our students of how they can develop that process too.

Indeed, there is the argument that this process of independent thought comes with age and maturity. However, it is possible that we can guide and inform students of metacognitive processes that could lead to early acquisition of this level of thinking. Young (2009) suggests that English provides new ways of thinking about the world. While ‘thinking’ is, of course, an important element to our classrooms, how much do we consistently refer to thinking processes at the point of learning?

Jennifer Webb (2021) reminds us that, according to the EEF toolkit, metacognition ranks as the second most effective element in impactful education, with feedback taking the lead. Webb states that: ‘For feedback to have maximum impact, we need students to be metacognitive: taking feedback on board, internalising it and improving future performance’ (Webb, 2021, p. 55). Metacognition is undeniably important at this conjuncture, as the desired outcome is that the students, when working, are ‘going through a series of internalised questions’, which, in repetition, lead to a set of ‘sustained and interconnected behaviours’ (Webb, 2021, p. 24, p. 29) in the classroom. Additionally, Nimish Lad offers an excellent discussion of how top-down learning, compared to bottom-up processing, is far more efficient, as ‘a wide base of prior knowledge is used and processed, making explicit links between new and old knowledge’ (Lad et al., 2021, p.12).

It may seem like this is a far more psychological, scientific-based perspective on how we view our classroom pedagogy. However, I will argue that combining metacognition and cognitive schemas at the forefront of our teaching will create a far greater impact on our students.

Combining metacognition and cognitive schemas

For this perspective piece, I will exemplify how I may approach the classroom with metacognition and schemas in mind. Let’s take a Year 10 class who are about to study Blood Brothers for their first GCSE English literature text. With the following three questions in mind, the lesson will begin.

  • What do you already know about 1970s–1980s Liverpool and Britain as a whole?
  • Does the material in front of you connect to your existing knowledge?
  • Is your brain making any links or questions at this point?

While these questions are not revolutionary, they do have a specific and consistent focus on the subconscious thinking and cognitive processing at work. Throughout the lesson, I will refer to each question, altering where necessary, with a continued interest in cognitive processing. During the early stages of this pedagogical approach, I will be working alongside students in constructing a ‘mental map’ on the page. As recommended by Jennifer Webb, ‘it is important that our teaching enables students to use their brains in the most effective way possible’ (Webb, 2021, p. 61). Given this, coaching them through the physical – and therefore the mental – organisation of their knowledge as it stands, and as it develops, will adhere to the combining of schemas and metacognition in the classroom. In doing so, we will be naturally drawing on elements of retrieval practice to further strengthen students’ understanding and ability to make strong, knowledgeable connections.

Moving back to the classroom, it will be my intention to keep the level of focus on cognitive processing during every task (at an acceptable and necessary level). Once the initial discussions and ‘mental maps’ have taken shape and students have begun to answer a question such as ‘How does Willy Russell use Mrs Johnstone to present societal struggles for women?’, I will provide students with a ‘mental check’, which could take shape in a bookmark that is stapled to the corner of their page. This ‘mental check’ would be illustrated with metacognitive questions and a ranking scale for them to refer to once each paragraph is complete. For every essay written, students will have taken the opportunity to ‘self-regulate’ (Webb, 2021) a minimum of five times. Typically, if this process is followed, my GCSE class will practise at least two essays a week – with at least 10 instances of self-regulation. Once the physical embodiment of the ‘mental check’ is slowly taken away, the repeated – and therefore embedded – culture of the ‘metacognitive classroom’ will allow the process to survive and impact on students’ learning, progress and, most importantly, independent thinking.

At this point, it is not only the knowledge and disciplinary skills being retrieved and monitored in the classroom; it is also the development and strengthening of independent, interconnected thinking. I expect that the employment of this pedagogy in the classroom will impact students to such an efficient level that they could employ it across the English curriculum, before, possibly, activating it across their subjects. It is understood that ‘the parts of the brain do not operate in isolation to the learning process’ (Lad et al., 2021, p. 15), so therefore it is paramount that students are aware of and have the opportunity to take full advantage of this fact by learning metacognitive strategies, allowing them to actively connect their schematic knowledge. Interestingly, the parts of the brain that activate the working memory and attention (prefrontal cortex) and the processing of visual imagery (occipital cortex) are biologically the greatest distance apart (Lad et al., 2021). Therefore, it can be suggested that there is a significant need for effective pedagogy concerning metacognition and schemas before we can even begin to expect motivation and epistemic curiosity.

From September, I aim to use a metacognitive approach to learning that places a heavier focus on schemas and connections within the classroom. In establishing a strong and healthy classroom that draws on extrinsic and, in turn, intrinsic motivation, I hope to foster independent and successful thinkers across the English curriculum.

    • Didau D (2021) Making Meaning in English. Abingdon: Routledge.
    • Emmott C and Alexander M (2014) Schemata. the living handbook of narratology, 22 April, 2014.
    • Lad N, Willingham D and Caviglioli O (2021) Shimamura's MARGE Model of Learning in Action, 1st ed. Woodbridge: John Catt Educational Ltd.
    • Minsky M (1975) A framework for representing knowledge. In: Winston PH (ed) The Psychology of Computer Vision. New York: McGraw-Hill, pp. 211–277.
    • Rosenblatt L and Booth W (2005) Literature as exploration. New York: The Modern Language Association of America.
    • Webb J (2021) The Metacognition Handbook, 1st ed. Woodbridge: John Catt Educational Ltd.
    • Young M (2009) Education, globalisation and the ‘voice of knowledge’. Journal of Education and Work 22(3): 193–204.
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    Author(s): Bill Lucas