I wrote this for my Education Psychology class while working on my Masters in Instructional Technology at Indiana University. At the time of writing I was working at Chonnam National University's English Language and Literature Department. I taught two sections (40 learners) of Interpersonal Skills and two sections (40 learners) of Job Skills. Both classes had in-class discussion groups.
This paper synthesizes “Unit 4: Meaningful Learning and Schema Theory” from Marcy Driscoll’s Psychology of Learning for Instruction and my experience teaching EFL in Gwangju, South Korea. Examples, experiences, and recommendations for incorporating a more conscious plan of schema theory will be shared and explained.
Nature of Schema
Rumelhart’s “a data structure for representing the generic concepts stored in memory” and the textbook’s associations that schemas are like plays and theories reminded me about my classroom as a play that my students participate in. This thought gives rise to thinking about my learner’s learning experiences prior to entering my classroom.
My Korean students are products of a Confucian-based learning system which focuses more on codes of behavior than the content of learning. In a typical Korean classroom, the teacher is “god” and the students show their respect by regurgitating to the letter what their teachers have taught them. Emulation without creativity or synthesis is rewarded. Surpassing, tweaking or challenging the teacher’s knowledge is penalized through alienation by peers, ridicule and shame by the teacher and perhaps physical punishment by the teacher or parents. Rote memorization is the primary communication method of what is being “learned” in the classroom. The students who come to my class as a university student are masters of memorization – for classroom work, for exams, and for grades.
My students enter class waiting to be fed. They then expect to replay exactly what they have been given, with little attention given to “understanding” the content or method. However, I do not teach in a Confucian style, but follow a constructivist approach to learning. Finding successful schema examples to transition my students from a Confucian style memorization classroom to an interactive, student-centered constructivist classroom is challenging even if I was teaching in the L1 (Korean), and is a daunting challenge in an L2 (English).
Understanding the process of schemas allows me to dissect my student’s natural resistance to a change in classroom methodology. They enter the classroom waiting to be filled with new information for them to reproduce. Their skill sets of listening and reading are much stronger than their active skills of language learning of speaking and writing. The schema of “classroom” activates a passive learning expectation. I may perhaps be lucky enough to have some students who have studied overseas or with a native speaking English teacher. Simply being a “native speaking English teacher” is a schema for my students which invokes an active learning participation style. They enter the classroom with these two conflicting schemas. The classroom schema is a much more deeply etched schema than a native speaking English teacher. The students incoming stimulus of classroom activates a schema (bottom up) with variables that then set up expectations (top down) for them to assign values to those variable. Since their expectations of a passive classroom are not met their existing schema of classroom is not instantiated. This requires them to look for an alternate schema or to modify their current schema.
I assist my learners to work within a new classroom paradigm by modeling my expectations of student-centered classroom. This modeling frequently doesn’t work because the schema I am invoking (student-centered) has no real meaning for them. The models, such as choosing their own topic from a list of choices, arguing a point, giving an opinion, are unsuccessful because the students only emulate the model without challenging it to suit their particular interest or need. English language ability (understanding the instructions) is not the problem. The students are active, produce spoken or written work, by reverse-engineering the model, but don’t go outside of the modeled norms.
Modeling and the students’ re-creation of the model is good practice, but insufficient for their language acquisition stage. They are intermediate to proficient speakers of English. My students are not moving into authentically inspired communication of their personality, thinking, or feelings. They are not applying the model to alternate situations.
These events and guided actions are continued with teacher feedback emphasizing success and failure. When feedback is given to an obviously active discussion that challenges the students’ interpretation of what is successful, it is replaced with expectations of a more successful learning situation, but perhaps less linguistically successful, example. A rationale is shared each time so students can start incorporating new aspects of my expectations for their performance in an interactive, student-centered classroom.
Usually there are about three class meetings with this method before students demonstrate the interactive, student-centered classroom without intervention or reminders. When this happens, I take a full class to share the successful student model with all of the class members. This is an especially important step.
By dissecting the successful student discussion to the class as a whole, I incorporate two elements from the Confucian based classroom model to help make the interactive, student-centered model more cognitively sticky for the students.
The attention to certain class members is a particularly strong schema for the students. In a Confucian based classroom they are accustomed to the teacher seeking out the best student and praising them while reprimanding the rest. My attention and praise of these students capitalizes on the Confucian schema. This is a critical moment when students adjust their classroom schema expectations to fit my constructivist model. Students who miss one or both of these days struggle for the rest of the semester; those who attend both days demonstrate a significantly improved approach (confidence) to their classroom learning.
The other element from the Confucian-based model is the importance of relationships among peers. As the teacher I can tell and demonstrate an interactive, student-centered classroom, but the students believe that if they can’t do it, then that is to be expected; they are not as smart as the teacher. When a group of students are recognized and I, as the teacher, give them status as an equal, suddenly the dynamic of passivity as a valuable classroom expectation disintegrates and is replaced by the expectation that it is better to be themselves and make some grammar mistakes than to play it conservatively and duplicate the model.
Schema Acquisition and Modification
A more detailed explanation of the above classes can be elucidated by categorizing it as accretion, tuning, and restructuring during the schema acquisition and modification stage.
Accretion or fact learning is very strong for my students. They have a huge knowledge warehouse in their brains of grammar structures and vocabulary words. However, they don’t produce spoken of written language comfortably. Accretion allows the students to remember what they already know. Using advanced organizers to help elicit existing knowledge has been very helpful to pull out language, but my students still struggle to produce language authentically because they lack confidence in a high stakes arena (classroom).
While the advanced organizers of a particular lesson on a content area help them activate what they already know, I want them to change their behavior (speak and write). Tuning is evident when their classroom behavior changes becoming more consistent with the interactive, student-centered models that are continuously encouraged and assessed. Practice of more student decision making and supporting opinions regardless of language accuracy is valued higher by the assessor (me) than proficient language production.
Asking students to change hard-coded learning behaviors is a daunting task. Raising awareness is an important step, but really is just another knowledge fact for them to add to a list of other facts. Demonstrating is the start of the change of behavior. Decoding the evaluation of success in an interactive, student-centered classroom (giving rationales) provides more information, time and examples for students to manage the cognitive load of all of the behavior changes. An actual restructuring of cognitive categories can be witnessed when a successful student group becomes a point for automating the schema of what a “interactive, student-centered classroom” is.
Automation and Cognitive Load
For the future I would manage cognitive load more sensitively and more transparently. I would like my students to transfer their new constructivist learning behaviors into all of their classes as well as to life long learning itself.
Reputation and the grapevine are powerful tools at Korean universities. After two semesters at my current university, online forums, word of mouth, and observations of my classes have translated into a change in entering students’ expectations. I now have more students entering my classroom because I don’t teach in a Confucian manner. They enter with more openness to constructivist principles, but they still don’t know how to participate effectively, sensitively, and efficiently in a constructivist classroom. The following are some recommendations for my classroom management based on schema processing.
Elicit classroom expectations
Use advanced organizers to elicit their own experiences of learning English in Korean classrooms. Assist them in class discussion with questions that help them analyze and support why some learning situations were more successful than others. Elicit solutions about how to be interactive; elicit definitions of what “student-centered” means.
Generate classroom paradigm
Invite students to write learning contracts and classroom rules. Compare student generated contracts and rules to my contract and rules. Discuss points of difference. Have students support their opinions. Support my own rationale of contract and rules.
Allow for substantial reflection and feedback
Continue practice of discussion with intervention feedback to move students in a personalized way towards successful interactive, student-centered class behavior. Build in more class time for written, visual reflection of how the discussion was successful in relationship to our contract and rules.
Break down more learning barriers
While I have analyzed that the critical point for my students to play comfortably in a constructivist class is a successful student model, I leave room for me to be wrong about this. Another explanation may be regarding the affective domain and interstudent rapport.
Students in my classrooms are heavily dependent on feeling comfortable with their peers before they produce language to their ability. I frequently have proficient speakers being silent in order not to intimidate others. I also have “talkers” who talk a lot but have some particularly offensive communication styles. There are also those who have a beginner, low intermediate production level who either drop the class in the first weeks or suffer in silence in class. I spend a significant amount of time and energy choosing activities which create a level language playing field in our class. To facilitate a faster rapport building, I would invite previous students of differing abilities to share with my students in a special “guest” discussion lesson. I would do this because the successful student model is more cognitively sticky (Korean students demonstrating what interactive, student-centered classrooms are) than less personal materials regarding the same issue being given to them by the teacher (too similar to the Confucian-based model).
Thank you for reading my formative evaluation of schema theory and my constructivist classroom.