Course design 9: Schema (build on what they know)

According to Wikipedia a schema can be described as…

  • An organized pattern of thought or behavior.
  • A structured cluster of pre-conceived ideas.
  • A mental structure that represents some aspect of the world.
  • A specific knowledge structure or cognitive representation of the self.
  • A mental framework centering on a specific theme that helps us to organize social information.
  • Structures that organize our knowledge and assumptions about something and are used for interpreting and processing information.

This is one of the reasons for the importance of themes and the sequential structure of topics that are introduced in a logical order throughout the training day. It helps participants to maintain a cohesive schema. But there’s more to it than that.

All of your training ‘victims’ will have their own schemata (worldviews) already. They bring them into training with them and good training acknowledges that.

If the materials you present appear to conflict with their pre-established worldview then you will have great difficulty in maintaining their interest, their engagement and your own credibility. So it’s important to start the ‘journey’ they will take through the training with what they already understand. To put it another way…

Meet them where they are

In the previous instalment I used the example of a deliberate self harm course for a reason. It’s because it provides us with an excellent illustration of how to use participants’ pre-existing schemata to gain engagement and then lead them on to new discoveries and more sophisticated understanding. Let me explain….

Many people believe that deliberate self harm is all about us. They think (because for years care professionals have told them) that deliberate self harm is all about attention seeking and manipulation. The reality is that this is not true but to begin with this blunt statement would meet signficant resistance that the trainer may never really overcome.

So before we can lead people to this realisation we need to do two things…

First we need to give the participants a reason to change their minds – they must make their own decision. As Rudyard Kipling once wrote

“A man convinced against his will

Is of the same opinion still”

Secondly we need to ‘soften the blow’ by incorporating as much of their pre-existing knowledge into the new belief system as we possibly can.

In deliberate self harm training I usually do this by exploring coping in general and by asking the group about their own coping skills. Once we have developed a long enough list of coping skills we highlight the ones that induce chemical changes in the central nervous system. At this point we have not directly mentioned self harm, just general coping skills.

In this way we tap into the participants’ existing schema about coping and then added a small piece of information (that doesn’t contradict their original view) which is that they are manipulating brain chemistry to feel better.

Only once they have clearly understood the chemical aspect of coping skills such as exercise, alcohol and substance use, arguing, making love, relaxing/meditating, comfort-eating etc do we make the point that physical trauma also stimulates endorphins in the central nervous system in exactly the same way.

We have begun with what they already understand about their own coping, added a piece of information that is non-threatening and then introduced the same information to demonstrate that deliberate self harm is just another version of what we all do.

This is working with the participants’ schemata. It also remains consistent with the general themes of the training…

  • Deliberate self harm is a coping strategy.
  • We’re all the same.
  • Care workers are not the focus of people’s problems – it’s not about us.

By taking the time to work with peoples’ schemata we can introduce some quite sophisticated concepts over the course of a day without difficulty. It isn’t uncommon for participants to report a completely changed point of view by the end of the day without having to overcome any significant resistance during the training. This lack of resistance is a sign that attention has been given to step by step development of their existing schemata rather than trying to go straight into what may be contentious, unfamiliar or otherwise uncomfortable for them.


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