Understand Schema, Understand Difference

By Green, Bonnie A. | Journal of Instructional Psychology, June 2010 | Go to article overview

Understand Schema, Understand Difference


Green, Bonnie A., Journal of Instructional Psychology


In decades past, children entered into classrooms that were less diverse. They all came in knowing much of the same information, having had very similar experiences. They spoke the same language, ate the same food, and heard the same stories and music. In many case, they even knew each other. This group of less diverse students stayed less diverse as they progressed through 12 years of school, all together. Today, few classrooms have children who share similar backgrounds. Children come from different types of family structures and cultures. Many speak languages beyond what is spoken in the classroom. Today, teachers are faced with a more diverse set of students. Is it easier to teach less diverse students? Well, it probably is, however, at a cost.

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As a psychology statistics professor who teaches a wide range of students, I work with diversity in many forms. In every class I teach, I have students with extreme math anxiety sitting next to students with no math anxiety. I have college students who have limited mathematical skills sitting next to students who have mastered calculus. It would be easier if everyone came into the class knowing the same amount of math material, but since they have not, I believe, I have become a better teacher. The effects of extreme anxiety on exam performance would not have been nearly as noticeable had I never taught students who are comfortable with mathematics. The questions I have heard from my more mathematically gifted students have aided me in coming up with better ways of presenting material to all of my students, just as having to break down a complex topic into pieces for my mathematically challenged students. My students' diversity in mathematical comfort and knowledge has forced me to become a better instructor for all of my students.

As such, though I will say, teaching a school filled with children who have all experienced the same things in the same ways would be easier, it is precisely through diversity that we become more knowledgeable and better educators. In this article, I will explain how a specific cognitive function called the schema is often what is driving the differences we see between the children in our classrooms. It is through understanding how schemas impact how we attend, comprehend, and behave that will enable us to better understand issues of diversity and assist our children in this endeavor as well, because people who understand schemas understand Difference.

No difference in Mr. Squirrel

When my daughter was two she just loved watching squirrels, which lead my husband to name the squirrel in our yard, Mr. Squirrel. As time passed, and the trees in our yard matured, more squirrels came to settle. Seldom would there be more than one squirrel visible at a time. As such, my daughter viewed all squirrels as Mr. Squirrel. At around the age four, when she past a major cognitive developmental milestone (often referred to as possessing a theory of mind), I, like any cognitive developmentalist, began to informally test her cognitive abilities, to see what changed and what stayed the same regarding her thinking. Every time we saw a squirrel in our yard, I asked her if it was Mr. Squirrel. She assured me it was. I inquired as to how she recognized a squirrel as being Mr. Squirrel. My daughter told me that the squirrel in question was behaving like Mr. Squirrel, so it must be Mr. Squirrel. Within the year we moved, not far, but probably too far for Mr. Squirrel to join us. After we had been at the house for a couple of days, my daughter saw a squirrel and became very excited. "Mr. Squirrel moved with us," she squealed. My daughter was certain Mr. Squirrel was in our new yard as the squirrel in our yard behaved JUST like Mr. Squirrel. You see, every time my daughter approached Mr. Squirrel, he would run to the closest tree, start up the one side, then quickly scamper around to the back of the tree and continue up the tree. …

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