COGNITIVE THEORY

Much of the recent psychological thinking and experimentation in education includes some facets of the cognitive theory. This is true in basic as well as more advanced training programs. Unlike behaviorism, the cognitive theory focuses on what is going on inside the student's mind. Learning is not just a change in behavior; it is a change in the way a student thinks, understands, or feels.

There are several branches of cognitive theory. Two of the major theories may broadly be classified as the information processing model and the social interaction model. The first says that the student's brain has internal structures which select and process incoming material, store and retrieve it, use it to produce behavior and receive and process feedback on the results.

This involves a number of cognitive processes, including executive functions of recognizing expectancies, planning and monitoring performance, encoding and chunking information and producing internal and external responses.

The social interaction theories gained prominence in the 1980s. They stress that learning and subsequent changes in behavior take place as a result of interaction between the student and the environment. Behavior is modeled either by people or symbolically. Cultural influences, peer pressure, group dynamics and film and television are some of the significant factors. Thus, the social environment to which the student is exposed demonstrates or models behaviors and the student cognitively processes the observed behaviors and consequences. The cognitive processes include attention, retention, motor responses and motivation. Techniques for learning include direct modeling and verbal instruction. Behavior, personal factors and environmental events all work together to produce learning.

Both models of the cognitive theory have common principles. For example, they both acknowledge the importance of reinforcing behavior and measuring changes. Positive reinforcement is important, particularly with cognitive concepts such as knowledge and understanding. The need to evaluate and measure behavior remains because it is the only way to get a clue about what the student understands.

Evaluation is often limited to the kinds of knowledge or behavior that can be measured by a paper-and-pencil exam or a performance test. Although psychologists agree that there often are errors in evaluation, some means of measuring student knowledge, performance and behavior is necessary.

The earliest challenge to the behaviorists came in a publication in 1929 by Bode, a Gestalt psychologist. He criticized behaviorists for being too dependent on overt behavior to explain learning. Gestalt psychologists proposed looking at the patterns rather than isolated events. Gestalt views of learning have been incorporated into what have come to be labeled cognitive theories. Two key assumptions underlie this cognitive approach: (1) that the memory system is an active organized processor of information and (2) that prior knowledge plays an important role in learning. Cognitive theories look beyond behavior to explain brain-based learning. Cognitivists consider how human memory works to promote learning. For example, the physiological processes of sorting and encoding information and events into short term memory and long term memory are important to educators working under the cognitive theory. The major difference between gestaltists and behaviorists is the locus of control over the learning activity: the individual learner is more key to gestaltists than the environment that behaviorists emphasize.

Once memory theories like the Atkinson-Shiffrin memory model and Baddeley's working memory model were established as a theoretical framework in cognitive psychology, new cognitive frameworks of learning began to emerge during the 1970s, 80s and 90s. Today, researchers are concentrating on topics like cognitive load and information processing theory. These theories of learning play a role in influencing instructional design. Aspects of cognitivism can be found in learning how to learn, social role acquisition, intelligence, learning and memory as related to age.

Constructivism views learning as a process in which the learner actively constructs or builds new ideas or concepts based upon current and past knowledge or experience. In other words, "learning involves constructing one's own knowledge from one's own experiences." Constructivist learning, therefore, is a very personal endeavor, whereby internalized concepts, rules and general principles may consequently be applied in a practical real-world context. This is also known as social constructivism . Social constructivists posit that knowledge is constructed when individuals engage socially in talk and activity about shared problems or tasks. Learning is seen as the process by which individuals are introduced to a culture by more skilled members (Driver et al., 1994). Constructivism itself has many variations, such as active learning, discovery learning and knowledge building. Regardless of the variety, constructivism promotes a student's free exploration within a given framework or structure. The teacher acts as a facilitator who encourages students to discover principles for themselves and to construct knowledge by working to solve realistic problems. Aspects of constructivism can be found in self-directed learning, transformational learning, experiential learning, situated cognition and reflective practice and religious practice.

Informal and Post-modern Theories

Informal theories of education may attempt to break down the learning process in pursuit of practicality. One of these deals with whether learning should take place as a building of concepts toward an overall idea, or the understanding of the overall idea with the details filled in later. Critics believe that trying to teach an overall idea without details (facts) is like trying to build a masonry structure without bricks.

Other concerns are the origins of the drive for learning. Some argue that learning is primarily self-regulated and that the ideal learning situation is one dissimilar to the modern classroom. Critics argue that students learning in isolation fail

 
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