Solving a problem is great. Even better is when solving one problem helps students form a schema that they can use to solve future, more complex problems, McREL CEO Bryan Goodwin writes in his “Research Matters” column in the October 2017 issue of Educational Leadership.
Schema is the researchers’ term for the experience required to innovate solutions to new problems, Goodwin writes, offering two examples of careers that require the instantaneous meshing of learning, experience, and new data: airline pilot and chess master. Such experts can’t spend their lives continually relearning absolutely everything, every moment of every day; it would be impossible to function that way, let alone innovate. Instead, they need to rely on what they’ve learned to date and build upon it to keep improving.
The implications for airline passengers can be dramatic: Goodwin contrasts an in-flight emergency that ended well with one that ended tragically, and describes the difference in terms of the two pilots’ varying ability to access expert schemas.
Understanding schemas should help teachers as they help students become lifelong learners, Goodwin believes. A good place to start, he advises, is to study how schemas come to be, so students can not just learn, but learn how to learn. This won’t be easy because of the “enigmatic” nature of schemas, he cautions. But the rewards in terms of subject mastery are potentially so vast, it’s worth the effort: “Once we’ve developed them, our declarative and procedural knowledge become so intertwined that it can be difficult to separate them or retrace the steps we took to develop the expert schema we now employ automatically.”