Monday, 23 November 2009

Schema theory in early years education

Like many others, I was taken to a new level of observing and thinking about children when I read Chris Athey's book, Extending thought in young children: a parent-teacher partnership. (By the way, in my opinion the 1990 edition is a much better and more satisfying read than the revised second edition which appeared a couple of years back).

There cannot be many books which both theorise children's development, and also have a direct influence on practice for decades. This is one of them.

Athey's theory is built on Piaget's work, and her focus is on young children's spontaneous play and activity. Prior to Athey's research and the publication of her book, the Oxford Pre-School Project researchers (Bruner, Sylva, Wood et al) had argued that activities which required problem-solving or had a definite outcome (completion of a jigsaw, a meccano set, etc) were generally those with the most cognitive challenge and therefore the most educational value. Wood and Bruner had also, following Vygotsky, placed a significant emphasis on the role of the adult in helping children's problem-solving and as tutor to the young child at play. On her current website, Sylva describes the Oxford Pre-School Project as "breaking new ground by questioning an unbridled ‘free play' ideology."

So one reading of Chris Athey's work is that she was contesting this view, and putting the child back in the centre of early education. Athey describes the patterns she observed in children's spontaneous play and activities: these are mostly patterns of action, but also include visual patterns like grids. By concentrating on these "forms", she argued that children who might be seen by researchers like Sylva as flitting from one activity to another without much cognitive challenge or learning, could be seen differently as persistently following a form of action. So Athey would not understand a child who puts a piece of paper in an envelope, then rolls herself up in the carpet, and then dresses a doll, as flitting rapidly from one thing to another, without sustained concentration. Instead, she would see the child as following a persistent form of action (enveloping). Her coding would suggest that the child's inner cognitive structures inform a persistent set of actions; Sylva's might suggest that this was an example of unbridled free play, with questionable value.

However Athey is far from advocating unbridled free play. Firstly, she lays great emphasis on the importance of the adult observing the child closely, recognising these persistent forms of action, and then planning more experiences around the same theme. So the enveloping child might be offered envelopes and sheets of paper of different sizes, more opportunities to roll herself and other objects up in fabric, etc. Secondly, she stresses the importance of the educator working closely with the child's parents: their combined knowledge, she argues, will greatly benefit the child by enabling the educator better to build on experiences and interests in the home, and the parent to understand better the child's repeated, perhaps puzzling actions.

Following the broad sweep of Piagetian theory, Athey argues that schemas cluster together and are the origins of concepts. She also draws on Piaget's conception of stage theory - schemas are understood to progress through the levels of sensory-motor, symbolic representational, functional dependency, and thought.

Anyone who has observed their child constantly throwing toys out of the pushchair, off the highchair, over the banisters and so on, day in and day out, will feel at some level convinced by Athey's thesis that there is more to this than just random, irritating or difficult behaviour. Perhaps the child, like a scientist, is exploring vertical trajectories - how far objects drop, how long it takes, and what happens on the point of impact.

Schema theory derived from Athey's work has a strong place in early years practice in England, and indeed some other countries too - perhaps most notably New Zealand. It is used successfully in many nursery schools and other settings, and this has been quite extensively documented.

Yet, admitting straight away that I am not a psychologist, and have only lay knowledge in this whole area, I wonder if there are some aspects of this theory which could be further explored?

First of all, in my reading of Piaget, motor schemas are prominent in cognitive development for babies and very young toddlers. This leaves me unsure about the theoretical robustness of focusing on motor schemas as a means for the cognitive development of children aged, say, three or four years old. My understanding of post-Piagetian psychology is that the emphasis would more usually be on the way the child automises sequences of actions to achieve particular ends, a schema being an efficient procedure of different actions so that each little step does not have to be separately thought through or solved as a problem. This makes me wonder whether the usual understanding of the schema in early childhood education (one type of repeated action) is applicable to most children aged three and over.

Secondly, schema theory as outlined by Athey and those who have followed her is built on Piagetian stage theory, which is largely rejected now. The Cambridge Primary Review summarises that (page 91) "Piaget's recognition that children actively construct their knowledge of the world through their action upon it has been upheld. As Gosawmi and Bryant explain, the discovery of 'mirror neurons' (brain cells which fire both when a person performs an action and when they observe someone else performing it) indicates that sensorimotor knowledge is the starting point of cognitive development, but that it is augmented rather than replaced by symbolic representations 'gained through action, language, pretend play and teaching'". I think this idea of augmentation rather than replacement is implicit in Athey's work, and in this as well as other respects she was far-sighted. However there appears to have been little theoretical development in this respect since 1990, and it is still usual for articles about schemas to reproduce the different stages and their labels without a blink, for example the current series in Nursery World.

All the same, there are some very impressive case studies of children's development and learning being supported through the application of this theory, including those produced by the Pen Green Research Base. But I wonder if there might be other explanations?

For example, could it be that the really significant thing is not so much the identification of a schema, but the reconceptualising of the child. When educators and parents see a child as being "obsessed" with the same actions, an irritation, and a producer of chaos, it is perhaps an adverse climate for the child's development and learning. But schema theory prompts a new view - the child as an investigator, a constructor of meaning, persisting with meaningful actions and representations. This might well prompt and all-round lessening of tension and conflict, an atmosphere in which the child can explore with more freedom and confidence, and with the affirmation and active interest of significant adults.

Similarly, the quality of much of the planning which draws on schema theory is striking. But again I wonder whether the effectiveness might not come from the excellence of theory so much as excellence of practice. It is clear that the children involved in Chris Athey's research project had a marvellously rich early childhood curriculum, full of interesting visits, wonderful resources in the nursery, all supported by adults (both parents and educators) who were fascinated in everything the children did and thought about them with due seriousness.

Other practitioners using schemas have started with the observation of quite simple observed behaviours, like children dropping things, and developed very rich provision - enabling children to drop objects from different heights, to use pulleys and chutes, and to construct systems of tubes and gutters, for example.

I am not sure that the whole edifice of schema theory is needed to support this work. Could it be thought of instead as what good early years educators have always done - starting with the child's actions and interests, and encouraging more complex movement, play, and thought? 

Postscript: some of these ideas about schema theory are further explored in a more recent post and I have also reviewed two more recent books about schema theory for the journal Early Years

Read more:  Chris Athey outlines the aims of the Froebel Educational Institute Project.
The Oxford Pre-School Project (Bruner et al) Under Five in Britain 
Chris Athey: Extending Thought in Young Children: A Parent-Teacher Partnership
Robin Alexander: Children, Their World, Their Education: Final Report and Recommendations of the Cambridge Primary Review


  1. no useful information

    1. it depends on what you are researching :D