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What Is a Schema?

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Definition:

A schema is a cognitive framework or concept that helps organize and interpret information. Schemas can be useful because they allow us to take shortcuts in interpreting the vast amount of information that is available in our environment. However, these mental frameworks also cause us to exclude pertinent information to instead focus only on things that confirm our pre-existing beliefs and ideas. Schemas can contribute to stereotypes and make it difficult to retain new information that does not conform to our established ideas about the world.

The History of Schemas

The use of schemas as a basic concept was first used by a British psychologist named Frederic Bartlett as part of his learning theory. Barlett's theory suggested that our understanding of the world is formed by a network of abstract mental structures.

Theorist Jean Piaget introduced the term schema and its use was popularized through his work. According to his stage theory of cognitive development, children go through a series of stages of intellectual growth. In Piaget's theory, a schema is both the category of knowledge as well as the process of acquiring that knowledge. As experiences happen and new information is presented, new schemas are developed and old schemas are changed or modified.

Schema Examples

For example, a young child may first develop a schema for a horse. She knows that a horse is large, has hair, four legs and a tail. When the little girl encounters a cow for the first time, she might initially call it a horse. After all, it fits in with her schema for the characteristics of a horse; it is a large animal that has hair, four legs and a tail. Once she is told that this is a different animal called a cow, she will modify her existing schema for a horse and create a new schema for a cow.

Now, let's imagine that this very young girl encounters a miniature horse for the first time and mistakenly identifies it as a dog. Her parents explain to her that the animal is actually a very small type of horse, so the little girl must this time modify her existing schema for horses. She now realizes that while some horses are very large animals, others can be very small. Through her new experiences, her existing schemas are modified and new information is learned.

Problems With Schemas

While the use of schemas to learn in most situations occurs automatically or with little effort, sometimes an existing schema can actually hinder the learning of new information. Prejudice is one example of schema that prevents people from seeing the world as it really is and inhibits them from taking in new information. By holding certain beliefs about a particular group of people, this existing schema may cause people to interpret situations incorrectly. When an event happens that challenges these existing beliefs, people may come up with alternative explanations that uphold and support their existing schema instead of adapting or changing their beliefs.

References:

Bartlett, F.C. (1932). Remembering: A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Piaget, J. (1928). The Child's Conception of the World. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

More Psychology Definitions: The Psychology Dictionary

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