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An inquirED Blog

Schema Building and Knowledge Transfer

Teaching for Knowledge Transfer

What strategies can be used to build robust knowledge networks in young learners? How do schemas contribute to long-term comprehension and retention? In our most recent webinar, we were joined by Harvard researcher Mary A. Burkhauser for a deep dive into the science of knowledge building through schemas and how they impact student learning across subject areas.


Key Takeaways

  • Schemas are foundational cognitive frameworks that aid in organizing and understanding information.

  • Integrating new information with existing knowledge through schemas can facilitate the acquisition and application of new concepts.

  • Effective knowledge transfer relies on connecting new information with established schemas to enhance the application of learned concepts across different contexts.

  • Curriculum design should focus on supporting knowledge transfer by encouraging students to apply existing schemas to novel concepts and scenarios

Schema Building for Enhanced Knowledge Building

We were joined on our webinar by Mary Burkhauser, a researcher at the READS lab at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Formerly a middle school teacher in the South Bronx, she now focuses on how teachers engage with literacy reform efforts and their impact on scalability. With a background in education and research, Mary holds a B.A. from Cornell University, an M.S.T. from Pace University, and a Ph.D. from Harvard. Sarah Milo Hoskow, Head of inquirED’s Partner Experience Team, also joined us as a moderator.

Burkhauser began by describing how schemas serve as fundamental cognitive frameworks for organizing information. “A schema,” Burkhauser explained, “is like a tree trunk with branches coming off the trunk and leaves covering the branches." It’s a helpful analogy that illustrates how schemas provide a structured way of understanding and organizing knowledge, with core concepts as the trunk, categories as branches, and specific details as leaves.

By integrating new information with existing knowledge, schemas ease the assimilation of new concepts. According to Burkhauser, students can "hang their knowledge on a schema to make it easier to acquire, connect, and apply knowledge to new concepts." In teaching, activating schemas involves linking new knowledge to what students already know, fostering meaningful (and manageable) learning experiences. According to Burkhauser, focusing on schema facilitates "the identification and filling of knowledge gaps," helping students to overcome obstacles in learning.

The Importance of Knowledge Transfer

Effective transfer of knowledge depends on learners' ability to connect new information with their existing schemas. This connection enhances their capacity to apply learned concepts in diverse contexts. It's like using puzzle pieces from one puzzle to solve another. However, it takes practice for students to apply their existing schema to novel concepts. That’s why Burkhauser believes that curriculum should be designed to support transfer – not just focusing on reviewing and revisiting the same topics and skills – but on transferring that knowledge to other concepts, scenarios, and problems. According to Burkhauser, this is important not only within a given subject area but also across disciplines, “leveraging students' existing knowledge and schema to make meaningful connections."

Schema and Transfer in Action

As an example of schema and transfer in action, Burkhauser shared a recent interaction: her daughter asked what a battery was and how it worked. Burkhauser didn’t know – but tapped into her own schema of a “system” to help build both her and her daughter’s knowledge. "I really love the schema of a system,” Burkauser shared, “it can apply to so many different topics and areas of knowledge." This schema helped her break down the concept of a battery: "Does it have multiple parts? What are its parts? What are those parts working together to do or accomplish?" By framing the explanation around systems, Burkhauser could connect to her daughter's existing knowledge and make the concept of batteries more relatable: "It's a system– like a car with different parts – and they move together to store electrical energy." This approach not only facilitated knowledge transfer but also strengthened their shared understanding of a complex concept.

Strategies and Resources

Burkhauser and moderator Sarah Milo Hoskow suggested several practical strategies to build schema and promote transfer during lesson planning and instruction. Examples include:

  • Concept mapping

    •  According to Burkhauser, activities such as concept mapping help in "building and organizing students' schema systematically…visually represent the networking of vocabulary words and concepts, allowing students to organize and connect their knowledge." See a Project Zero sample.

  • Concept Connections Circle

    • Hoskow shared a variation of concept mapping rooted in discussion and with a kinesthetic element. The Concept Connections Circle protocol allows students to collaborate and discuss the connections between key vocabulary terms and concepts. View a sample from inquirED’s Inquiry Journeys, K-5 social studies curriculum.

  • Teaching for Transfer: Read for Understanding

    • This article highlights the significance of fostering background knowledge and schemas through the Model of Reading Engagement (MORE) intervention, demonstrating its effectiveness in enhancing reading comprehension based on a longitudinal, randomized controlled trial.

  • MORE

    • MORE is the elementary science and social studies program from READS lab that builds schemas and improves academic achievement including literacy and math!

    • Follow on Instagram

View the Webinar

Watch the recorded webinar below to delve deeper! Leveraging schemas enhances learning by effectively organizing information. Connecting new knowledge to existing schemas facilitates applying concepts across contexts. Practical strategies such as concept mapping contribute to building schemas and fostering knowledge transfer.

About inquirED

inquirED was founded by teachers with the mission of bringing inquiry-based social studies to every classroom. Inquiry Journeys, inquirED’s elementary social studies curriculum, is used in schools and districts across the country to help students develop deep social studies content knowledge and build the inquiry skills that are essential for a thriving democracy.


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