Strengths and Weaknesses

Schema Theory, more so than many other learning theories, seems to pass the common sense test.  While brain researchers cannot pinpoint the storage spots for individual thoughts, it makes sense to think that there is some form of categorical organization.  Because we know from living that we do not store every detail of every experience, it makes sense that we employ a memory system that prepares us for new experiences with expectations based on the past, and that we record the pertinent and relevant details so that the minutia does not clutter our memories.

Schema Theory addresses some of the criticisms of its forerunners.  Where Piaget was criticized for ignoring the influence of gender and culture on cognitive development, Schema Theory suggests that schema are built on individual experience.  Thus where gender and culture influence the lived experience of any individual, schemata develop accordingly.

Memory is a second area where Schema Theory builds upon its predecessors.  According to Byrnes (2001), the theory proposes that schemata help us to remember, comprehend and problem-solve.  At the same time, the encoding of an experience is hindered by selection, gist-extraction, and interpretation.  Bartlett (1935), in his earliest descriptions of schemata, acknowledged that they diminished the integrity of the memory retrieval process as familiar elements of schemata were used to fill in the gaps of incomplete memories.  Critics of the theory find fault with the contention that schemata can be responsible for memory facilitation and memory muddling simultaneously, but if we can accept that we have the capacity to remember and simultaneously that memory can be (and often is) faulty, then Schema Theory’s explanation of memory can be viewed as more complete (and maybe honest) than many others.

The true strength of Schema Theory lies in its ability to both explain and predict learning.  The processes mentioned above are the theory’s explanation of learning, and very simple tests such as the one presented in this embedded Brain Rules video demonstrate the importance of schemata for predicting learning.  If we are familiar with the established schemata of learners, we can greatly increase the likelihood that they will understand new information by presenting it in a manner that will be meaningful to them.  This has tremendous implications for curriculum development as well as for the structure of education to be a process that positions teachers as active team members in a year-to-year progression, not just “grade level teachers” responsible for a single year of cognitive development.

There are, of course weaknesses in the theory.  Discussing Rumelhart’s addition to the theory of accretion, tuning and restructuring, Byrnes (2001) notes, “…it would be useful to know why it changes in these ways.  For example, why would restructuring happen instead of tuning? Thus, Schema theory is fairly imprecise on the issue of developmental mechanisms.”  A second weakness regards the theory’s ability to explain human behavior in unprecedented circumstances (Holland, 1992).  When we have no schema to draw upon for a situation with which we are confronted, Schema Theory fails to explain why we do what we do.

Schema Theory continues to intrigue educators and gain followers, even as more modern theories rise to prominence in the field.  This blog is open to all to discuss the reasons to revive, dissect and selectively maintain, or dismiss the theory that has endured through  80 years of support, criticism and reinvention.

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