Continuing with our monthly exploration of educational psychology, for January we are shifting our focus to Jean Piaget, the Swiss psychologist whose research centred on psychological and moral development. His work on schemas has been hugely influential in education and is a great way to make sure Breadies have a grounded and developed understanding of concepts.

Piaget developed his theory of cognitive development throughout the 1930s and was one of the first psychologists to study how cognition develops. He dismissed the notion that we are born with an innate level of intelligence, instead believing that we go through a process of maturing biologically and through environmental experience. Through this, we become better able to understand new concepts and remember them.


So what does development look like for Piaget? In his theory of how a human learns and remembers, we store understanding in small blocks called ‘schema’. These are small chunks of information that we build up over time allowing us to develop, build and understand concepts.

You can imagine it a little bit like making a library or archive of ideas; you start with very simple, small schemas, but as you get older, these schemas multiply and become more complex. Once created, a schema is stored and then used again when needed. For example, the schema for getting a train would be: book the ticket, wait on the platform, find a seat, look out for your stop. Once completed, the schema is then ready to be used again and again. Piaget believed that babies are born with some schemas built in; for example, a baby automatically knows how to suck, such as the nipple, finger or toy. An example of how this schema works is that if something touches the baby’s lips, it knows to suck it. Piaget would call this, ‘the sucking schema’ – a habit of sorts. The more we grow and develop, the more these small habits and learnt behaviours develop. When a toddler begins to walk for example, it would be using a pushing schema, balancing schema and grasping schema.

To continue developing, a learner must have equilibration, the need to keep learning and to remove the frustration of feeling confused by something. Piaget developed this process of understanding which learners must go through to develop schemas:

(taken from

Assimilation – Using a pre-existing schema to tackle a new situation or object.

New situation/object

Accommodation – Finding out that that previous schema doesn’t work in this new situation, and changing it.


Equalibration- The force which powers this change and need for understanding.

Let’s put this in context. You show a young Bready at FEW level a picture of a tiger They may shout ‘cat!’ This is your Bready going through the stage of assimilation, applying the schema of a cat, along with their English language schema of ‘cat’ with the picture. You could then say no, or try to explain how it is a big cat, or simply call it a tiger, which brings around accommodation. The Bready realises that this may look like it fits their original interpretation of a cat, but isn’t, or that there are cats which aren’t small like house cats. The Bready then experience disequilibrium before understanding that this is a tiger, and thus the schema of ‘cat’ is developed, and a new schema, ‘tiger’ is created.

The idea of schemas fits in place with Piaget’s overall picture of development which comes in four stages:

Sensorimotor stage (0-2) – At this age children are beginning to understand objects, developing simple schema for them. They are beginning to learn that if something is removed from sight, it still exists (object permanence).

Preoperational stage (2-7) – At this stage, children are egocentric, and often can’t see things from others’ perspectives. They begin to see objects and things symbolically

Concrete Operational Stage (7-11) – At this stage, children can begin to think logically and can work things out without needing to use physical objects to do so, such as coloured shapes in holes. Between 7-11 children can understand weight and numbers.

Formal Operational Stage (11+) – Here children all the way up through adulthood can think logically, analyse concepts and come up with their own hypotheses.

For Piaget, to develop to the best of your abilities, you need to be an active learner, not merely a passive listener. You have to be able to engage with what’s around you and practise using that sense of intrigue and disequilibrium to figure things out for yourself. Problem solving skills is something that must be practised and can’t be taught.

Similarly to Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development, Piaget believed that learners at each stage has a level of ‘readiness’, and students should not be taught above the level they are capable of understanding cognitively.

Schemata and ESL Learning

So how can we apply the concept of schemata to our English language teaching at IQBar?

Schemata are very useful when engaging in reading and listening exercises. As you may have noticed with the reading activities in the CGE books, most of the time the activity begins with a few simple questions asked to the Bready, what do they already know about the topic? What can they see in the accompanying pictures and how does that make them feel? This is an example of ‘activating the background schema’. To help Breadies understand new vocabulary and tackle longer sentence structure, you can first see what the Bready can connect with from their own experience and daily life. This way, when reading unfamiliar words and whole passages which can seem a little alien and difficult, Breadies can find something familiar and understood in their own culture and context.

This can apply to all aspects of ESL teaching. If you’re teaching Breadies about clothing for example, it could be useful to show them visual prompts, find out what clothes they are wearing and learn from their own current experience at home. This process of introducing topics in a way that is familiar to Breadies is called the ‘lead in’ and you can see it in action through the songs at the beginning of Picaro sessions which introduce the main theme, games where Breadies can find objects and explore, and for more advanced Breadies, detailed conversations and questions about how topics apply to their own life.

It is important to remember that Breadies have to be the active learner, so engagement and questions is important, see if you can find ways so it seems the Breadies are teaching themselves in a way, so that they take the lead with answers. If a Bready is confused and cannot find the answers straight away, try to introduce already familiar schemas and lead up to an answer through exploration, images, drawings, questions.

For our youngest Breadies, it is often a case of creating that initial connection between object and its name, building up those simple schema so when they first see an object, they instinctively know what it is.