Schemata: I’m a Lunch Grand Master

SandwichThis morning I was given information in a rapid fire format, and I have to say, in all modesty, that I remembered it rather well. My wife told me what to put in our packed lunch for the day’s outing: tuna sandwiches, flapjack and some fruit.

Why did I find it so easy to remember this information, and to carry out the procedure it implied with no further instructions? Because I’m a packed lunch grand master!

I’ve spent years mastering the finer points of the packed lunch menu, to the point where a packed lunch pattern only needs to be flashed before my eyes, and I remember it with ease.

So really, I should be able to transfer these remarkable memory skills, mastered over years of practice, to remembering historical dates, right?


1660 to, erm . . .

Wrong . . . I’m bad at remembering historical dates. Somehow those memory skills I have for sandwiches just don’t seem to apply to fixing the dates of Charles II’s reign into my mind. I can remember when his reign began, because that’s where my A-Level course on British history finished. But as for when it ended, it’s really hard to make it stick.

Reflecting on this reminded me of the famous study of chess players which both E D Hirsch and Daniel Willingham mention. Participants in the study were shown chess boards very briefly, then asked to replicate what they had seen from memory. When the chess boards contained actual chess scenarios, chess grand masters remembered the positions with remarkable accuracy. But when the chess boards contained random layouts, the grand masters did not remember them any better than anyone else. The grand masters remembered the layouts because they recognised them, from the vast store of chess scenarios that they had stored in long term memory.

We need structures in our long term memory in order to make sense of the information that is thrown at us. Hirsch calls these structures schemata. There is a schema for a packed lunch: something savoury, something sweet, and some kind of fruit.

The essential role of schemata in understanding and building knowledge demonstrates two things beyond a shadow of a doubt:

1. Transferable skills are a myth.

2. Without clear overall structures stored in long term memory (such as a chronological list of the kings and queens of England) pupils will be crippled in their efforts to build coherent understanding and more detailed knowledge.

(Sandwich image from Wikimedia)


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