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[Series: Classic Learning Science] Reconstructive Memory & Schema Theory

By McGraw-Hill Education 3 years agoNo Comments
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Research is abundant in the field of education. However, when it comes to learning science, some studies stand out from the rest.

We’ve rounded up a handful of unique and impactful studies relating to learning science that we want to share with you. These studies, no matter how old, have left a mark on the educational timeline and they continue to inspire current researchers.

Over the next several weeks, we will be sharing these studies with you. First off, we would like to introduce Frederic Bartlett and his study on remembering that incorporates the folktale The War of the Ghosts.


Who is Frederic Bartlett?

If you’re into psychology, you have probably heard of Frederic Bartlett. A paper by Henry L Roediger provides details on Bartlett and his prominent works. Born in a small town in Gloucestershire, United Kingdom, Bartlett would mature into a well-known psychologist.

As a child, sickness prevented him from going to boarding school, but Bartlett did not consider this a setback, obtaining education through friends and family from the comfort of his own home.

Bartlett eventually went on to receive a MA from the University of London, followed by a doctorate from Cambridge University, where he then taught.

He is most well-known for his research on memory, resulting in his popular book: Remembering: A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology. In this book, Bartlett also establishes the popular schema theory.


Research on Remembering

A large portion of Bartlett’s research relied upon The War of the Ghosts, a Native American folk tale. He used the story to conduct two experiments, one focusing on repeated reproduction and the other on serial reproduction.

Repeated Reproduction

In this experiment, the short story The War of Ghosts was read out loud twice to participants. Fifteen minutes later, they were asked to recall the story. Following this, subjects would be asked to recall the story at various points in time, some up to ten years later. Based on how participants were able to recall the story, Bartlett drew some interesting conclusions about memory.

Serial Reproduction

In most cases, as one might expect, the remembered versions of the story were usually shorter than the original and some parts had been interpreted differently by the person recalling the tale. Bartlett referred to this reinterpretation as rationalization, a way for people remembering the story to make sense of unusual parts. Sometimes, participants would not include parts that didn’t make sense if they were not ideas people could associate to a past experience. This typically lead to the story becoming boring, leaving out the interesting aspects that were harder to remember.

Serial Reproduction

Bartlett’s second experiment was very much like the game broken telephone. In this experiment, The War on Ghosts was told to one person, who would recall it after a certain amount of time. Then that person’s recollection was then relayed to another who would also recall it after a certain period of time. This process continued until the desired number of recalls was reached.

Repeated Reproduction

As one might expect, the recollection of the story was once again changed and simplified. Bartlett noted a bigger change in the differences created through the recall of the story in this experiment. After completing this experiment, Bartlett related these findings to passing down cultural information generation to generation and later theorists would also link serial reproduction to the concept of rumors.


Schema and Remembering

One of the main theories to emerge from Bartlett’s work is the idea of schema. As described by Bartlett, schema is “an active organisation of past reactions, or of past experiences, which must always be supposed to be operating in any well-adapted organic response.” That is, certain regular responses and behaviours happen because they can be related to past experiences that have been serially organized and made sense of and operate in a bigger picture. Roediger describes schema as “a general organization of a story of a typical event.” For example, detective movies follow the general schema involving a good detective, a bad villain, a mystery and a resolution.

In Bartlett’s study, he found that both experiments fell under the influence of schema. In repeated reproduction, when people removed or changed the interesting parts of the tale, they were doing so to make it fit into an existing schema they were familiar with. Participants were making an effort to change the story in order for it to make better sense, according to their standards.

In the serial reproduction study, Bartlett found that the recollected versions of the story were also quickly adapted to fit more conventional forms or a known schema. In both experiments, adapting the story to fit a schema was thought to be done in an attempt for the participant to better remember the tale.


Conclusions on Schema and Memory

Based on Bartlett’s research, he was able to shed light on some of the ways the mind works. One of the biggest takeaways from his experiments is how the brain remembers. Instead of reproducing facts, ideas or stories verbatim, people tend to construct them, leaving out details or including new ones based on schemas or personal experience. As Bartlett said himself, “Remembering is not the re-excitation of innumerable fixed, lifeless and fragmentary traces. It is an imaginative reconstruction or construction, built out of the relation of our attitude towards a whole active mass of organised past reactions or experience, and to a little outstanding detail which commonly appears in image or in language form.”

The mind is a beautiful thing and the way it works when it comes to remembering can be quite complex. With classic studies like the one conducted by Bartlett, we get closer to understanding how it works and inspiring new ways of researching, learning and instructing based on the results.

  Series: Classic Learning Science
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