You may have heard the word schema as it relates to coding, where it refers to how a database is structured. While a schema in psychology still refers to how information is organized, it focuses on how the human mind does it.
What Is a Schema in Psychology?
Aschemais a cognitive framework or concept that helps organize and interpret information. We use schemas 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 focus instead 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.
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. Bartlett's theory suggested that our understanding of the world is formed by a network of abstract mental structures.
TheoristJean Piagetintroduced the term schema, and its use was popularized through his work. According to his theory of cognitive development, children go through a series of stages of intellectual growth.
InPiaget's theory, a schema is both the category of knowledge as well as the process of acquiring that knowledge. He believed that people are constantly adapting to the environment as they take in new information and learn new things.
As experiences happen and new information is presented, new schemas are developed and old schemas are changed or modified.
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 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 at 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.
Types of Schemas
While Piaget focused on childhood development, schemas are something that all people possess and continue to form and change throughout life. Object schemas are just one type of schema that focuses on what an inanimate object is and how it works.
For example, most people in industrialized nations have a schema for what a car is. Your overall schema for a car might include subcategories for different types of automobiles such as a compact car, sedan, or sports car.
What are the four types of schemas? They include:
- Person schemas are focused on specific individuals. For example, your schema for your friend might include information about her appearance, her behaviors, her personality, and her preferences.
- Social schemas include general knowledge about how people behave in certain social situations.
- Self-schemas are focused on your knowledge about yourself. This can include both what you know about your current self as well as ideas about your idealized or future self.
- Event schemas are focused on patterns of behavior that should be followed for certain events. This acts much like a script informing you of what you should do, how you should act, and what you should say in a particular situation.
How Schemas Change
The processes through which schemas are adjusted or changed are known as assimilation and accommodation.
- Inassimilation, new information is incorporated into pre-existing schemas.
- Inaccommodation, existing schemas might be altered or new schemas might be formed as a person learns new information and has new experiences.
Schemas tend to be easier to change during childhood but can become increasingly rigid and difficult to modify as people grow older. Schemas will often persist even when people are presented with evidence that contradicts their beliefs.
In many cases, people will only begin to slowly change their schemas when inundated with a continual barrage of evidence pointing to the need to modify it.
How Schemas Affect Learning
Schemas also play a role in education and the learning process. For example:
- Schemas influence what we pay attention to. People are more likely to pay attention to things that fit in with their current schemas.
- Schemas also impact how quickly people learn. People also learn information more readily when it fits in with the existing schemas.
- Schemas help simplify the world. Schemas can often make it easier for people to learn about the world around them. New information could be classified and categorized by comparing new experiences to existing schemas.
- Schemas allow us to think quickly. Even under conditions when things are rapidly changing our new information is coming in quickly, people do not usually have to spend a great deal of time interpreting it. Because of the existing schemas, people are able to assimilate this new information quickly and automatically.
- Schemas can also change how we interpret incoming information. When learning new information that does not fit with existing schemas, people sometimes distort or alter the new information to make it fit with what they already know.
- Schemas can also be remarkably difficult to change. People often cling to their existing schemas even in the face of contradictory information.
Challenges of Schemas
While the use of schemas to learn, in most situations, occurs automatically or with little effort, sometimes an existing schema can hinder the learning of new information.
Prejudiceis one example of a schema that prevents people from seeing the world as it 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.
Resistance to Change
Consider how this might work for gender expectations and stereotypes. Everyone has a schema for what is considered masculine and feminine in their culture. Such schemas can also lead to stereotypes about how we expect men and women to behave and the roles we expect them to fill.
In one interesting study, researchers showed children images that were either consistent with gender expectations (such as a man working on a car and woman washing dishes) while others saw images that were inconsistent with gender stereotypes (a man washing dishes and a woman fixing a car).
When later asked to remember what they had seen in the images, children who held very stereotypical views of gender were more likely to change the gender of the people they saw in the gender-inconsistent images. For example, if they saw an image of a man washing dishes, they were more likely to remember it as an image of a woman washing dishes.
How Cultural Norms Influence Behavior and Gender Value
A Word From Verywell
Piaget's theory of cognitive development provided an important dimension to our understanding of how children develop and learn. Though the processes of adaptation, accommodation, and equilibration, we build, change, and grow our schemas which provide a framework for our understanding of the world around us.
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
Baldwin MW. Psychological bulletin. American Psychological Association. 1992. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.112.3.461
Padesky CA. Schema change processes in cognitive therapy. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy. 1994;1:267–278. doi:10.1002/cpp.5640010502(Video) TRANSFORMING SCHEMA | WHAT ARE PLAY SCHEMAS? | WHY YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THEM
Aosved AC, Long PJ, Voller EK. Measuring sexism, racism, sexual prejudice, ageism, classism, and religious intolerance: The Intolerant Schema Measure. Journal of Applied Social Psychology. 2009;39(10):2321-2354. doi:10.1111/j.1559-1816.2009.00528.x
- Levine, LE & Munsch, J. Child Development. Los Angeles: Sage; 2014.
- Lindon, J & Brodie, K. Understanding Child Development 0-8 Years, 4th Edition: Linking Theory and Practice. London: Hodder Education; 2016.
By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.
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Schema is a mental structure to help us understand how things work. It has to do with how we organize knowledge. As we take in new information, we connect it to other things we know, believe, or have experienced. And those connections form a sort of structure in the brain.What is the role of schemas in child development and learning? ›
Schemas are useful in observation and assessment because they demonstrate the journey children make from sensory learning and physical movement to understanding and becoming skilled in symbolic and cause and effect learning, which enables executive functioning.What is schema and what role does it play in memory? ›
Schemas are semantic memory structures that help people organize new information they encounter. In addition they may help a person reconstruct bits and pieces of memories that have been forgotten.What role do schemas play in cognitive development? ›
schema, in social science, mental structures that an individual uses to organize knowledge and guide cognitive processes and behaviour. People use schemata (the plural of schema) to categorize objects and events based on common elements and characteristics and thus interpret and predict the world.Why is schema play important? ›
The importance of schemas in children's self-initiated and spontaneous play has become a valued and embedded part of early childhood practice. Schemas are those repeated patterns seen in children's behaviour, and they link directly to the development and strengthening of cognitive structures in the brain.What is an example of a role schema? ›
Role schemas, which encompass our expectations of how a person in a specific social role will behave. For example, we expect a waiter to be warm and welcoming. While not all waiters will act that way, our schema sets our expectations of each waiter we interact with.Why is schema theory important in education? ›
Schema theory has provided education with a way to think about the representation of some forms of complex knowledge. It has focused attention on the role old knowledge plays in acquiring new knowledge, and has emphasized the role of top-down, reader-based influences in the reading process.What is schema theory of learning? ›
What Is Schema Theory? Schema theory describes how people group together associated memories. These groups are known as schemata. Linking new information to existing knowledge makes it easier to move it from working memory to long term memory and makes retrieval much more efficient.What is schema short answer? ›
The term "schema" refers to the organization of data as a blueprint of how the database is constructed (divided into database tables in the case of relational databases). The formal definition of a database schema is a set of formulas (sentences) called integrity constraints imposed on a database.What does schema mean in simple words? ›
Definition of schema
1 : a diagrammatic presentation broadly : a structured framework or plan : outline. 2 : a mental codification of experience that includes a particular organized way of perceiving cognitively and responding to a complex situation or set of stimuli.
A schema in psychology and other social sciences describes a mental concept. It provides information to an individual about what to expect from diverse experiences and circumstances. These schemas are developed and based on life experiences and provide a guide to one's cognitive processes and behavior.What is schema in children's learning? ›
Schemas are described as patterns of repeated behaviour which allow children to explore and express developing ideas and thoughts through their play and exploration. The repetitive actions of schematic play allow children to construct meaning in what they are doing.What are schemas What is their role in reading? ›
It is a process of using reader's existing knowledge (schemata) to interpret texts in order to construct meaning. Many reading experts agree that the schema theory is one of the reasonable theories of human information processing. Schemata, the plural of schema, are believed to be the building blocks of cognition.Why are schemas important for Piaget's theory? ›
According to Piaget, children are born with a very basic mental structure (genetically inherited and evolved) on which all subsequent learning and knowledge are based. Schemas are the basic building blocks of such cognitive models, and enable us to form a mental representation of the world.