Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Schema Theory; Following The Threads of Children and Teachers

“There’s a thread you follow.
It goes among things that change.  
But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you
are pursuing.

You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.”

From The Way It Is by William Stafford

January’s teacher provocations unpacked Schema theory. This theory recognizes repeated patterns in children’s play as threads that connect children’s learning over time. Most of us have encountered a child who throws everything they can, who spends lots of time on the swings learning how to jump off, and who watches an airplane move across the sky. This child might have a “ trajectory” schema. Children who fill buckets or bags and make deliveries may have a “transporting” schema. These two examples are physical presentations of schemas, but someone with a circular or rotational schema may enjoy spinning things (and themselves) and enjoy drawing circles and thinking about how a jet engine, a bicycle pedal or a Ferris wheel works. For some depth on schema theory, look here. For a practical chart to help you start identifying and planning for schemas, check out this chart and remember this is NOT a comprehensive list. There are as many schemas as there are children.

Thinking about children’s play and work this way helps teachers and parents take a new look at repeated play behaviors and see them as constructive, engaged learning actions. (Sometimes adults find themselves stumped or irritated by repeated behaviors and this perspective can help us identify the learning taking place even as the child is pulling all the toilet paper off the roll, or covering their arms and hands with paint.) Teachers can use our knowledge of individual children’s schemas to carefully prepare our provocations to support the ways our children are learning. Story cubes can help a child with a trajectory schema in co-creating a narrative, adding pieces of fabric to the block area might intrigue a child who has an enveloping schema.

Unlike many topics we explore together, this one was, for the most part, an unfamiliar concept. We did some reading from Getting Started With Schemas by Nikolien van Wijk (a book I bought in New Zealand where schemas are more commonly used to understand children’s play and work), and from other sources. We sorted photographs of children’s play by schema, drew stories of schemas we see every day and as we worked, we talked.

Over four meetings, I began to see threads of common understanding in how teachers constructed this idea of schemas and how they fit into our work. I think that some of these threads may be abstract schemas, habitual ways of considering new ideas. I don’t have enough evidence from these meetings to identify the repeated patterns for individuals but overall I heard teachers folding this new information into their existing expertise in a variety of ways. I’ve grouped them here to demonstrate the many different ways to consider new ideas about our work, and to demonstrate the parallel tracks our professional development and our teaching of young children can take.

Analyzing: Some teachers took apart the theory of schemas, looking at it from different angles.

“How does adult... interest or [action] impact a child’s schema? How does the child react to being seen this way?”

“I sometimes wonder, is that [repeated behavior] keeping them from doing other things? But I guess that is the thing, actually.”

“I’m becoming very aware of children’s and adult’s agendas.... I’m not attuned enough yet to see a pattern, but I see how schemas could help me see children’s agendas more clearly.”

Considering development: Some teachers fit the concept of schemas onto their preexisting knowledge of how children change and grow.

“It’s hard for me to see a schema NOT as something that naturally comes after one stage and before the next.”

“As kids get older it’s easier for me to see how much attention they can give to one thing.”

“How do I learn a child’s schema without being influenced by stages of learning?”

Self-reflecting: These teachers thought a lot about how their emotions connect with what they learned about schemas.

“Why does this behavior bother me? Why does it matter if he fills a bucket every day?”

“This helps me to reframe what I take for granted in children’s play.”

“Developing curriculum in this way challenges me to think about why I say no, make rules.”

“When I can put myself in a child’s shoes, I’m better able to teach. This is another way to do that.”

Questioning: These teachers tend toward big questions, and their learning about schemas catapulted their thinking into philosophical directions.

“What makes different kids develop different schemas?”

“What is the nature of learning?”

“So... schemas are always patterns but patterns are not always schemas, right?”

Strategizing: Some teachers rolled up their sleeves and immediately considered how this theory would function.
“This is a way of watching a child’s focus; not on one idea or activity but across themes, across materials and activities.”

“What a wonderful way to think about redirection... and about continuing in a direction!”

“Kids in my class are fighting, are being powerful and dominating one another. I’m not sure what schemas they’re exploring but I’ll take notes.”

“It’s a way of saying yes, which my team is trying to do right now. We notice and then say "Let’s find a way to make these things happen”.

“It’s a helpful way of getting to know new children.”

It’s important for me to note that these are not transcriptions of conversations. I sifted four different 90 minute conversations into these categories. I looked for patterns in the same way that a teacher looking for schemas will. Sometimes two people with different threads spoke to one another. It was challenging, but teachers here are used to communicating despite differences. Just as children with different schemas can be invited to play together by carefully designing provocations, adults with different approaches to new ideas can be invited to talk about them through careful provocation. The variety of activities (group text study, conversation prompted by quotations, illustrating a narrative, collaboratively sorting photos by schema) provided allowed folks with different preferred threads of investigation to connect.

Self-reflection is a teaching skill. The more we can see our own thread, the better we can find them in the work and play of others. Which of the above resonates with your way of wondering?

How do you see this kind of work happening with the third protagonists, families? What threads of habitual thinking do they hold through a variety of different experiences?


  1. Thank you for your excellent post. I am brand new to the idea of schemas. The only thing I've seen is an organizational chart that lists schemas with types of materials that might support their exploration. I'm excited to learn more!

    1. Hi Chris... I really recommend the book above if you can get your hands on it. Come back and comment again after you read the piece I linked to above. It's one of those simple ideas that we can take really deeply into our practice with some reflection.

  2. I read the beginning of the Wilton piece, and was so struck by the idea that children tend to play together when they share schemas, and independently when they do not-- and not only out of shared interest, but out an ability to communicate more fluently.

    Kendra, it seems like you echoed that observation when you mentioned staff with different schemas for thinking about schemas having difficulty talking in pairs.

    I wonder how much of adult disagreements stem from different mental maps. Watching the presidential election process, I am baffled at how some people see the same events completely differently. Could our different schemas be the culprit?

    Lots to ponder. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Sasha, I was thinking the same thing! At PTCC we've been using "Nonviolent communication" as a strategy to manage our conflicts and discern next steps for the last couple of years, and I love the enneagram as a series of metaphors/dispositions to think about. I think NVC works because it gets us BELOW our schemas, but schemas are "that thing" that we use to learn, work and get along, so becoming aware and reflective of our schemas is really key.

  3. Thanks for sharing this Kendra... very intriguing work that reminds me of the observation that "people like to do what they like to do, and they like to work on getting better at what they like to do"... It does seem that all of us have certain predilections that we are drawn to.

    These ideas seem to resonate deeply with our approach at Big Picture Learning (www.bigpicture.org)... In particular, I'm struck by the way in which designing a learning environment that empowers to pursue their interest in certain schemas would require attention to these "10 Student Expectations" (perhaps better thought of as design criteria) - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K96c-TGnSf4...
    More info and resources available here - http://10x.bigpicture.org/

    I'd be interested to hear about what you and the PTCC staff think about them as a provocation?

    1. Hey Andrew,
      Yes, I totally agree about "liking to do what they like to do". That really resonates with the poem I excerpted above. It's one of the things that drew me to reading autobiographies as a teenager because I was fascinated by the fact that you could look over a person's long life and see these patterns and trends. (But that's way easier than what we have to do as learners and teachers and see the patterns that we and our colearners are IN right now!)

      I love the "10 Student expectations" (and not just because I felt like I could answer "YES!" to all of them even for our youngest learners!) I'd love to share them with our teachers. I'll let you know how it goes.

  4. This is really interesting. The teachers in Infant North had spoken to us about schemas and their observations of the schemas of the kids in that room. The way this is often phrased is as if a child only has one schema, but I would imagine that any person could have multiple schemas that come into play in different situations. Also, I have observed children adopting schemas that they observe other children using. Therefore, I question whether these schemas are innate or inherent in an individual or if they can be adopted or learned?

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    1. Hi Colleen!
      Most children have multiple schemas and sometimes we see them "cluster" together. (For instance a train set might interest a child who has a connecting schema (the cars) AND a trajectory schema (rushing down the hill, through a tunnel and around the corner). Often a child is working really hard with one schema in particular so it may seem to take center stage. As Sasha observes above, sometimes different children in the same game will be working on different schemas which can cause friction, or spark innovation depending on circumstances.
      Most people agree that schemas sometimes appear to be inherent and others definitely show up later on. One of our teachers noticed a graphical schema that a child learned from an older sibling. Some schemas last a LONG time, (there was a child who was fascinated by circular motion before he was one and until he left us at two and a half) and others are more brief. If you ask your teachers they may be able to let you read a photocopy of the first few pages of the book I mentioned in the blog. (If they can't, I can make another one for you!)

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