Script Theory Research Paper Starter

Script Theory

(Research Starters)

Script theory is a model of human knowledge and cognition that has been successful in explaining memory organization and human behavior, and that has subsequently found many practical applications in the field of education. Scripts represent intelligence as a series of cognitive states (scenes) that hold critical information and explain the processes of the mind as a series of computations on the information stored. Humans learn scripts through repetitive social interaction and use them to predict, interpret, and understand new experiences. Educational implications of script theory include teaching in context, teaching through examples or through storytelling, and learning through doing and through repetition.



Educational Theory > Script Theory


Script theory is a model of human knowledge and cognition that has been successful in explaining memory organization and human behavior, and that has subsequently found many practical applications in the field of education. According to script theory, knowledge is represented in memory as a series of actions centered on a particular goal; this sequence is called a script. Humans learn scripts through repetitive social interaction and use them to interpret new experiences (Nelson, 1986). For example, one might have a script for going out to eat. First, one enters the restaurant, and either approaches the counter or waits to be seated, depending on the type of restaurant one is visiting. One then orders food, eats, pays the bill, and leaves (Abelson, 1981). A script is subdivided into smaller units called scenes. The restaurant script consists of a sequence of scenes. For example, eating the meal is a scene that can be broken down into several actions: picking up utensils, using them to grab food, chewing, using a napkin, and so on.

Researchers have identified three types of scripts: event, physical, and role scripts. Event scripts dictate how humans act in particular situations, physical scripts dictate expectations in particular places, and role scripts guide actions as particular roles are taken on. Scripts are internalized from a particular point of view: the restaurant script is different, for example, for the customer, for the manager, and for the wait-staff (Dalli, 1991).

Scripts can further be categorized as "weak" or "strong." A strong script is one that dictates the exact sequence of scenes or actions to be performed, while a weak script may allow for variations in sequence. For example, the restaurant script is "strong" because one typically follows the same sequence of events when going out to eat, while a child's birthday party script is "weak," as one can play games, eat cake, or face paint in any order (Abelson, 1981).

Event, Role & Physical Scripts

In addition to these event scripts, research has defined "role scripts" (Halpern, 1997) and "physical scripts" (Funnell, 2001). A role script is one that guides one's actions while taking on a certain role--for example that of a mother, teacher, or friend. Each of these roles requires certain actions, has a goal, and comes with specific expectations. A physical script is a "snapshot" of a particular place--for example a classroom--that also implies a goal (learning), actions (reading, writing, solving problems), and expectations (a teacher will be present, required materials will be provided, and so on).

Educators and developmental psychologists and researchers have found script theory appealing in describing behavior patterns and cognitive understanding (Dalli, 1991). One reason is that scripts can explain not only behavior, but cognition. Scripts are stored in memory (cognition) and retrieved and used in practical situations (behavior). They were thus welcomed as an alternative to the prevalent behaviorist explanations of E. L. Thorndike, J. B. Watson, and B. F. Skinner that only took into account observable actions and that failed to account for cognitive processes.

Formation of Scripts

Roger Schank, one of the proponents of script theory, wrote that the human mind stores a collection of stories (1990); these stories are how one comes to understand the world. Scripts are internalized through socialization--children, for example, learn how to behave in certain situations through imitating or by following the guidance of those more experienced. Scripts are thus informed by the particular society in which they are formed, and are defined by societal norms. As scripts are externalized through behavior, they allow an individual to "fulfill society's normative requirements" (Halpern, 1997, p. 863). Scripts are thus an "efficient socializing mechanism" that provide a "shared knowledge base" (Dalli, 1991, p. 6). Once a script has been internalized, it influences one's intentions, expectations, interpretations, and behaviors (Anderson, 1983). Increasing the number of scripts a student knows, then, will enable that student to feel comfortable in an increasing number of situations.

Increasing the number of scripts a student knows, however, also has its drawbacks. Scripts automate behaviors, thus making them more efficient. When one has already internalized a script, one ceases to consciously think about specific details of the task at hand, leaving more energy for detecting novelties. The danger is that with the automatic externalization of scripts comes an increased potential for loss of wonder and curiosity (Schank, 1990).

Script theory has been criticized by theorists, including its very proponents, for confining behaviors and cognition to a rigid schema (Schank, 1982a). Thus script theorists do not propose that all information stored in memory is structured in the form of a script. Rather, they postulate that episodic memory for events regularly encountered is conceptualized in a schematic form, and that this structure is dynamic, flexible, and is constantly updated by new experiences (Schank, 1982a).


A script, sometimes called a schema, is by its very definition a structure used to understand and organize thoughts and behaviors. Late in the nineteenth century, with the increasing promises of developing scientific theories, scholars in various fields became interested in the systematic description of underlying structures of knowledge. This movement, termed structuralism, is an interdisciplinary field, comprised of philosophy, psychology, linguistics, anthropology, and computer science, among others.

One of the first structuralists was Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), whose work was pivotal in the development of a schematic understanding of human knowledge and cognition. Saussure systematically analyzed language as a formal system of properties and relationships, using scientific formulations in the study of linguistics (de Saussure, 2006). The study of language as the distinguishing characteristic of the human species informed the way memory and cognition were understood across a broad range of fields.

Foundations in Piaget & Bartlett

The concept of schematic organization of memory and understanding first appeared in the work of developmental psychologist Jean Piaget (1896-1980) and in Sir Frederic Charles Bartlett's (1886-1969) work in experimental psychology (Bartlett, 1932). Piaget noted that children assimilate experiences, incorporating them into abstract schemata that they are then able to apply in various situations. For example, a young infant learns to grasp and suckle during breastfeeding, and then attempts to apply this schema to other aspects of his experience--thus is explained infants' tendency to place anything they are able to grasp in their mouths. Bartlett attempted to understand memory through his experimental work with storytelling. He observed that after being told stories, subjects could not remember specific details, but were accurate in remembering the general structure of stories, especially when stories followed typical patterns encountered in life experiences or in folklore. Bartlett hypothesized that memory holds a number of schemata, or structures of understanding, formed through repeated experiences (Bartlett, 1932).

Piaget's and Bartlett's work provided the foundation upon which computer scientists, decades later, built the formal foundations of script theory. Script theory was formulated by Roger Schank (1946-) and Robert Abelson (1928-2005), two researchers in the field of artificial intelligence, but was part of the larger movement of cognitive science that was born between the 1950s and 1970s and that has continued to grow in the twenty-first century. Cognitive science is the study of the mind and intelligence. It arose in direct opposition to behaviorist psychology popular in the 1950s that explained the complexity of human action through describing behavior alone, without accounting for mental processes. Cognitive science is approached through a wide range of conceptual lenses and methodologies, but is in its theoretical essence a theory of representation and computation (Martin Bly et al, 1999). It aims to represent intelligence as a series of cognitive states that hold critical information, and to explain the processes of the mind as a series of computations on the information stored.

Influence of Artificial Intelligence

The technological possibilities of creating thinking machines, which arose in the 1950s within the new field of artificial intelligence (AI), was pivotal in transforming the theoretical field of representational theory of mind into the empirical, practical applications of cognitive science. Though psychologists, anthropologists, linguists, and others had studied cognition as it manifests in human action, artificial intelligence for the first time was able to test whether the "rules" described by these empiricists truly did create intelligent agents. Natural language processing was used by researchers in AI to test these rules of representation, not only because machines at the time were not able to perform physical acts, but also because language processing is considered to be the uniquely human ability that represents intelligence (Haugeland, 1989).

Further Insights

The Theory of Scripts

Schank and Abelson formulated script theory as an alternative to purely structural explanations of language processing (Schank & Abelson, 1977). Their approach closely parallels Marvin Minsky's frame theory of AI, which models memory as a series of data structures called frames (Miikkulainen, 1990).

Schank and Abelson noted that structural representations did not account for meaning in sentences, and thus were of limited use when applied to the programming of artificial agents. For example, if the sentence structure noun-verb-article-noun is taken as valid, sentences such as "John ate an orange" are valid as well as sentences such as "John ate a chair." Further, they noted that two sentences with varied structures could be essentially represented by the same concept. For example, "I took a bath after arriving home" has the same meaning as "Arriving home, I decided to take a bath, and did so." Programming computers to understand meaning based on sentence structure alone proved to be of limited use.

Schank and Abelson further noted that even though people remember the general ideas and structures of stories, they tend not to use the same words in their retelling as those used in the initial telling. They postulated that the mind represents language as abstract concepts that are then stored in memory independent of language. For example, the sentence "John gave...

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