I’m currently enjoying ‘Mindware’ by the American psychologist Richard Nisbett and it’s making me think very hard about thinking, inference and reasoning amongst other things.
Early on in the book there’s an arresting section on the schema concept. Nisbett describes the term schema as referring ‘to cognitive frameworks, templates or rule systems that we apply to the world to make sense of it’. We have them for all sorts of things: “basketball” (indoors, five-a-side, holding the ball in your hands) and “football” (outdoors, eleven-a-side, kicking the ball with your foot), for example, or “packed lunch” (sandwiches, fruit, crisps) and “school dinners” (hot meal, meat, vegetables).
Object schemas are used routinely in many special schools to help students with significant learning difficulties understand and prepare for what is coming next. A pair of goggles might signify that swimming is coming up, or a piece of Numicon will be used to indicate that the next session will be maths. You can see how object schemas are used to positively influence the behaviour of children for whom a regular timetable or verbal instruction in isolation is inaccessible. The child is more likely to understand what is happening next and is therefore more likely to be settled and comfortable as opposed to anxious and worried.
Schemas affect our judgement and how we behave and help us to select the appropriate behaviours for different locations and events such as visits to the dentist, job interviews or queuing in the supermarket.
Nisbett explains this influence is also true of our use of stereotypes – schemas about particular types of people and this set me thinking about learning difficulties and the people who have learning difficulties. Schemas are clearly working away in the subconscious, amongst a lot of other things as I am learning from Nisbett, and have developed and evolved throughout the courses of our lives.
What schemas do you have for the following words?
Are the schemas that we have for these words negative in nature? Do they subconsciously suggest lower expectations for any children we teach who happen to be described using some of these terms? I’ll give you a word that’s specific to me.
I’m forced to admit that this word immediately brings forth some negative thoughts and words. I wish it weren’t so, but they’re there. I have to consciously put them away and refocus. The word does this because I worked with a number of children from the Fitzgerald family* when I first became a teacher in a comprehensive who all had some behavioural difficulties. Getting my class lists one late July for the next year, my eyes rested on another Fitzgerald. Within a fraction of a second I had judged this child without ever meeting them. Later on I was to learn a salutary lesson as it turned out that this particular Fitzgerald did not experience any behavioural difficulties, nor were they actually a member of that family at all (although that should have been irrelevant). I learnt the lesson, but my subconscious still drags up thoughts that, unchallenged, would unacceptably see me prejudge a child before meeting them.
Nisbett describes an experiment carried out by psychologists at Princeton University in which students made stereotypical judgements about a child based on their judgement of her social class. The experiment contended that “[p]eople will expect and demand less of [working-class Hannah], and they will perceive her performance as being worse than if she were upper middle class”.
Reading that chapter a number of times and thinking deeply and honestly about the subconscious schemas that are operating in my head I am concerned that the adverse judgements made by the students in the Princeton study are more than likely to be replicated or, I fear, magnified, by society when they hear or see the words
I fear this because I have seen first-hand how society in general (there I go with the broadest stereotype imaginable) has low expectations of people with Down syndrome. I see very little expectation that children with Down syndrome will go on to paid work or live independently. Why?
I am going to challenge you to confront your schemas and your stereotypes. Be brutally honest with yourself and dig deep to uncover what your subconscious mind is saying to you about those words in bold above and about the people you work with now, or have in the past, who have been described by those labels or others like them. It’s going to take some serious effort (I haven’t taught a Fitzgerald for eleven years) before each of us individually, and then society more broadly, replaces deficit schemas with ambitious schemas.
Jarlath O’Brien is Headteacher of Carwarden House Community School. His book ‘Don’t Send Him in Tomorrow’ is published by Independent Thinking Press.
* Fitzgerald is a pseudonym
 Darley and Gross, “A Hypothesis-Confirming Bias in Labelling Effects”