A schema is a concept typically associated with cognitive psychology. Arguably it has some roots in (or at least is similar to) the work of Piaget. Piaget (1971) makes a distinction between two types of knowledge development: assimilation and accommodation. He describes the process of assimilation as that of gradually integrating new knowledge into a learner’s existing knowledge base. In general, assimilation involves making linkages between old knowledge and new knowledge. Multiple exposures over time facilitate the assimilation process. Accommodation is a more radical change in knowledge. It involves changing existing knowledge structures as opposed to simply adding information to them. For accommodation, interaction with content must challenge existing perceptions.
Schema theory provides another perspective on the nature of learning. Roughly speaking, schemata are the packets in which knowledge is organized and stored (Anderson, 1995; Bransford & Johnson, 1973; Winograd, 1975). Initially, schemata were thought of as idiosyncratic mental representations of phenomena by individuals. Currently, there is some agreement that schemata are shared by and created by groups as they interact around a common topic (McVee, Dunsmore, & Gavelek, 2005).
Three types of schema development are typically identified: (1) accretion, (2) tuning, and (3) restructuring. Accretion and tuning refer to the gradual accumulation or addition of knowledge over time and the expression of that knowledge in more parsimonious packages. In a sense, accretion and tuning are akin to Piaget’s notion of assimilation. Restructuring involves reorganizing knowledge so that it might produce new insights. In a sense, restructuring is akin to Piaget’s notion of accommodation.
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