soul strikers

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Use your schema, avoid confusion! (or at least avoid oxidization…)

Cover of "Comprehension Connections: Brid...

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Teaching kids to use their schema, not just possess it, is one of the toughest skills to teach.  When you think about it, though, actually applying this skill, is hard for adults as well!  Sometimes we have such clear schema for something, we KNOW what a situation may mean, and we ignore it anyway- hoping things will just ‘work out’.

Ok- back up.  What is schema anyway?  Author and teacher Tanny McGregor, creator of my new favorite book forever, Comprehension Connections, refers to schema as a lint roller, that each person has their own lint roller in his or her brain onto which experiences stick. I typically explain it to my students as a personal experience filing cabinet, describing that you must be able to sift through your file folders when learning to access what you already know, or to draw upon once-mastered skills.   I remember about 10 things from college and one of them is my Education Psychology professor’s definition of schema: our prior knowledge is like hooks, hooks on which we can hang new thinking, create new connections, thus creating or synthesizing meaning.  Sounds great! He would be glad to know I remember this (thanks, Dr. Huey); it was my only college C and it was because I missed class…twice…but I had a really good reason! (small school=absence always noticed)

I call using schema the “I have a dog!” skill.  Because, well, especially if you have ever been in a Kindergarten classroom, it goes something like this: “Ok friends! Let’s talk about this story we just experienced.  The boy really missed his dog when it ran away and his whole family came together to search for his lost friend.  What does this tell us about the family? Do we have any connections [schema] to help us understand this experience?”  Response: “I have a dog! He is sooo cute!” followed by, “Yeah me too! We’re getting a puppy, but my mom thinks I am going to get tired of feeding it in the morning…” YES, but how does this create learning for you? How can having a dog help you understand this situation more?  I often tell my students that comments like this lead us straight off the dart board, as far from the bulls-eye as we could get, unless the experience directly relates to creating meaning of what has been read.

Really, the story isn’t as much about knowing how to have a dog as much as it is about knowing that it takes a group of connected individuals to reach a common, heart scraping goal: FIND THE DOG.  Often, when trying to understand a story or a theme, we get lost in the details, forgetting to USE our connections to truly understand and create living meaning- not just make the connections.

As adults, how often is our thinking clouded, causing us to not use our schema to understand situations? Probably often.  Last night, for example, my husband and I were excited to take a collected stash of microbrews to a close friend’s house, a local brewer, who often shares his newest finds in multi-annual mini-beer tastings in his kitchen.  See, my husband and are beer enthusiasts for sure, not to be confused with beer geeks who collect mental data about beer like some baseball players do about their favorite teams.   We gathered most of the collection this summer in a trip to California, the west being the home of some of the greatest IPA’s ever.

Now, we KNOW which types of beer age well, and which do not and after over 3 months, we surely knew most of these beers prepared for the testing were going to be oxidized.  For some reason, we ignored this schema over the last few months- saved them anyway.  Our desire to share in the discovery with others trumped our knowledge that they most likely would not last more than 1 month.  This error in using schema created discussion and laughter, and possibly a few choice words, and certainly does not affect us in a lasting negative way, despite the money and flavors that had to be poured down the drain…

It does create some new thinking for me however, about yet again considering the real-life applications of all we are teaching.  In order to teach these deeper comprehension skills, we must think about how they are successfully (or not!) applied in our daily adult lives whether listening, reading, talking, problem solving…  Knowing exactly how these thinking skills function in our adult lives helps us to more clearly pass this on to our students- knowing the ‘end game’ gives puts the bulls-eye of the target in clear view.

In this world zooming with information, it has become imperative that we can sift through it all, find what is important and use- USE what we KNOW.


6 comments on “Use your schema, avoid confusion! (or at least avoid oxidization…)

  1. Tomasen
    November 9, 2011

    LOVE the beer story! I also love how you are always thinking and making real life connections to your teaching life! I did get your e-mail. November is pretty insane for me. Flying out to Dallas on Sunday. Home Monday and then off to Chicago for Thursday through Saturday, then home for my concert in Portsmouth that afternoon! CRAZY!!
    Anyway, I too love Tanny’s book and would love for her to even write another one…or perhaps that is something you could do!! You are so good at thinking from the concrete to the abstract! What do you think?
    Keep writing girl and I will be in touch!


    • soul strikers
      November 9, 2011

      It is no problem Tomasen! We will see each other sooner than later!

      Sent from my iPad


  2. Lindsay
    November 7, 2011

    I find that my class is much more produtive in many ways, as I put a major “kabosh” on shares that are way off the dart board. They’ve learned that they can tell me later, although they don’t always remember! I could see this somehow turning a notebook, into a place where, if they remember they can jot down their thoughts that could be a story seed for their writing.
    I will definately share the filing cabinet analogy with my kids when discussing schema. I still wonder about how to help them become better “sifters”. How can they see what’s most important? How do I help them see that schema will help make a difference to their reading experiences?


    • soul strikers
      November 9, 2011

      Such good advice, Lindsay. It is hard as teachers to ‘cut kids off’ because of the message that sends them, but time is of the essence and we don’t have time to wander off topic to share that you, in fact, have dog too :).

      I wonder about sifting, too. Maybe we could try lessons where kids track their thinking on shorter texts, and then go back and see which connections played into understanding the whole meaning and which did not? Not to undermine ANY type of thinking, of course, but just to see, to let them see this for themselves.


  3. jenni
    November 6, 2011

    interesting! my junior year: rhetoric and cognition class. i wrote a paper about “mismatched schemas,” where i attempted to metacognitively analyze why i (and some other classmates) were either successful or unsuccessful in applying our respective schemas to particular writing situations. :-) (what i find particularly interesting is that, at that time…..many moons ago… the cognition articles we read did not refer to one overarching schema in that way that you do. it was all about specific schemaS. for instance, i would have a schema for writing english papers, a schema for baking cookies, etc.)


    • soul strikers
      November 7, 2011

      Thanks for the reply! Mismatched schema is really interesting- I found that when I asked the kids why Encyclopedia Brown’s nickname makes sense, they kind of stared at me, because his name isn’t Wikipedia Brown! I tend to think of as overarching (the filing cabinet) and then specific (each drawer, folder, paper). I think sometimes when you are reading, you have to sift through a variety of specific schema, which can be tough for any kids that have slower processing speeds.


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This entry was posted on November 6, 2011 by in education, Literacy Whatnots and tagged , , .

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