Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Schema - A Guest Post

The following is a "guest post*" from my friend and colleague, Lori Conrad.  Lori is co-author of Put Thinking to The Test (along with Cheryl Zimmerman, Missy Matthews, and me).  Lori has been an educator for nearly 30 years and has spent the past few years teaching fifth grade in a suburban school in the Denver Metropolitan area.  

I invited her to share a bit of her thinking with us... enjoy!

I Still Teach My Students About Schema  by Lori L. Conrad 

Yes, I admit it.  I spent the last month and a half talking with my fifth graders about background knowledge.  I know the Common Core doesn’t mention accessing prior knowledge or connecting to relevant schema.  I know that many colleagues across the nation have been told they “can’t teach BK any more.”  And I know that David Coleman, one of the authors of the Common Core, in a presentation to educators, stated that “as you grow up in this world you realize people don’t really give a **** about what you feel or think.” 

But I also know what the research says about how successful thinkers make sense.  It is clear that what thinkers know, what they bring to the act of learning, makes a huge difference in their capacity to understand.  It’s the mental files thinkers open, add to, rearrange, revise, and even empty out, that often determine how we add, integrate and use new ideas and information.  Because of this, teaching students about proficient use of their schema has to be a part of my yearlong instructional plan. 

This year, our study of how thinkers strategically make use of their background knowledge started with a question two students shared as we were winding down our exploration of inferring.  We’d been using a simple equation, text + background knowledge = inference, to illustrate how thinkers take specifics from any given experience, combine details with what they already know, to figure out things that the experience implies.  After working our way through a trio of picture books about the Civil Rights Movement, Merich and Jordan asked a very profound question: 

“What happens if our background knowledge lets us down?” 

They realized that we are able to think inferentially only when we bring something to the experience.  And what happens if we show up to that experience only to find that our pockets are empty, so to speak.  

With this question as the starting point, we spent the last six weeks really puzzling our way through schema theory.  We figured out that: 
  1. When what we are learning/reading matches our schema, what we already knois confirmed.  This feeling of “I knew that . . . “ helped us build confidence, and gave us a ‘foothold’ into a complex learning experience.  Too many of these “I knew that . . . “ might also signal that what we’re doing, the book we’re reading for example, might not be providing the challenge we need to push us as learners
  2. When what we are learning/reading is new to us, we have a responsibility to build our background knowledge.  We have to determine what’s most important in this new information, and decide where we want to file it away for easy access later on.  The kids really saw this as something akin to the way Google links different webpages and websites together so a search pulls up the most meaningful/useful information first.  This new, revised schema also led us to more sophisticated inferences and questions.  For example, as they built our background knowledge about early colonization, students began wondering about how the initial drive for religious freedom turned into religious intolerance in places like the Plymouth Colony.
  3. When what we are learning/reading contradicts what we already have stored in our prior knowledge, it forces us to delete errors and revise initial ideas.  These challenges to what they thought they knew nudges students to ask the sorts of clarifying questions researchers ponder when they run into a dead end.  Students recorded their confusions on post-it notes and in response entries.  These questions became the starting point for many of their conversations with me and with their classmates.  That “wait just a minute, that’s not what I thought” also helped students reread, recheck, and wonder about the validity of their own and others’ long-held beliefs.   
Our study of schema even helped us expand our definition of what background knowledge might actually include.  As readers, we realized that BK includes everything from the content, format and language of what we were reading to information about the author who composed it.  As writers, we make use of our schema about text structure, purpose, audience, and even specifics of English spelling and punctuation.  As mathematicians, knowing about multiplication and division of whole numbers gave us a leg up in our exploration of multiplying and dividing fractions, but we had some serious revisions to make in terms of our belief that multiplying always results in a larger number while dividing leads us to a smaller one.  As historians, building background knowledge about people, places and events, helped us draw conclusions about how the goals of European Explores like Christopher Columbus and Francis Drake actually set the stage for how American colonists lived hundreds of years later.  And as test takers, we looked at released items not as something to practice, but as an opportunity to name which schema files a specific test question or task demanded we access. 

It was a wondrous six weeks of learning.   

I can only guess at why exploring the ways a student’s background knowledge impacts her learning has lost instructional favor.  Wmight blamed it on: 

•  the hundreds of incipit ‘text-to-text, text-to-me, text-to-the word’ lessons that have cropped up in commercially produced comprehension strategy materials since those labels were first coined by Keene and Zimmerman in their first edition of Mosaic of Thought.
•  all the times teachers have let readers off the hook with simple responses like “I have a dog, too” without any sort of follow-up as to how that connection helped the readers better understand the story.
•  the fact that the authors of CCSS really do believe that everything there is to know about a text actually resides within the four corners of the page.   
• how little respect some educators have for what learners can bring to their school experiences.   

Regardless, I’ll continue to use the strategy of activating, building and revising background knowledge as one of the pillars of my instruction.  I want students to know that they have a responsibility to bring something to every learning experience and that they should walk away from each of these events changed.  

*Thanks, Lori, for sharing a glimpse into your classroom with us.  Your expertise and opinion always gives us fodder for thinking about our own practices!
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The thoughts expressed in guest's blogs are the intellectual property of the guest blogger.  The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the guest author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the blog owner. 


  1. Go, Lori, you literacy lighthouse!

  2. I agree. Teaching schema still continues to be a foundational comprehension skill. I have had many conversations with other teachers who concur. Moasic of Thought opened up a new world of comprehension for me, as a reader. I can't imagine teaching reading to first and second graders without validating and connecting to their own experiences. I hope there continues to be more discussion about the importance of skills and strategies we need to maintain as we build toward higher goals in the common core. Learning implies building on understandings. We as teachers and educators need to remember we are not abandoning practice when we revise our teaching/learning goals. We are simply adding to the knowledge and skills we already have. Great discussion!