This article presents an overview of cognitive theories of learning. As a field, cognitive psychology gained popularity in the late twentieth century as educators and researchers became increasingly dissatisfied with behaviorism. Whereas behaviorists believed learning could be explained through manipulation of the environment alone, cognitive psychologists believed what was happening inside the mind was equally, if not more, important. Although the cognitive approach to learning has dominated the educational scene for the last several decades -- and has been strengthened by advances in cognitive neuroscience -- it is not without its critics. Constructivists, in particular, criticize cognitive psychologists for downplaying the interaction between the learner and the environment, and for ignoring socio-cultural, historical, and political influences on the construction of knowledge.
Centuries ago, philosophers grappled with the same questions psychologists and educators are asking today: How do we learn? What do we know? In philosophy, those who study the nature and origins of knowledge are called epistemologists, and from the beginning, epistemologists have had very different ideas about learning (Schunk, 2004). The rationalists believe that ideas are innate and people gain knowledge through reason and thought alone. Empiricists, on the other hand, believe that ideas cannot exist independently of our experience of the external world, and that knowledge arises through sensory impressions. Plato, Descartes, and Kant were rationalists, while Aristotle, Locke, and Hume subscribed to an empiricist point of view.
Modern theories of learning are grounded in philosophy, and while the distinctions between empiricism and rationalism have become blurred over time, advocates of behavioral and cognitive theories of learning can trace their origins, in large part, to one or the other (Schunk, 2004). Behaviorists tend to be empiricists, while cognitive theorists tend to be rationalists.
From the early part of the twentieth century until the mid-1970s, behaviorist theories of learning dominated the educational scene in the United States. Behaviorists believe that learning occurs as a result of external events -- and while they acknowledge the existence of internal events such as thoughts, feelings, and beliefs -- they argue that learning could be explained without them. For behaviorists, controlling the environment by arranging the appropriate stimuli, and then reinforcing the subsequent response, is more important than individual differences in learning styles, motivation, or the role of memory in learning. Even though many scientists laid the foundation for the behaviorist tradition -- Thorndike, Pavlov, and Watson, to name a few -- B. F. Skinner and his theory of operant conditioning are most often associated with behaviorism.
New theories often evolve because of perceived shortcomings in prevailing theories, and indeed, many educators and researchers became increasingly frustrated with behaviorism's inability to account for the complexity of human behavior and thought. The introduction of the computer -- which gave psychologists a viable metaphor for studying the way humans process information -- coupled with this frustration, paved the way for the cognitive revolution. While no single event marked the beginning of this revolution, the work of several individuals helped define the shift (Bruner, Schraw, & Ronning, 1999). In 1957, Noam Chomsky repudiated Skinner's theory that language acquisition could be explained using the theory of operant conditioning; in 1956, G. A. Miller published an article describing the limits of our ability to process information; and in 1967, Ulrich Neisser published Cognitive Psychology, providing definition and structure for a growing field.
Early theories of cognition fell victim to some of the same pitfalls as behaviorist theories -- mainly, the attempt to develop a single theory, or a single law, that would explain all human behavior and learning (Gredler, 1997). Once cognitive psychologists recognized the futility of this search, they began studying a multitude of different mental processes, including but not limited to memory, perception, attention, language development, motivation, and problem solving. Even though cognitive psychology addresses many different aspects of mental functioning, the field is held together by certain shared assumptions. The core assumptions outlined below are drawn from Bruning, et al (1999), Gredler (1997), and Schunk (2004).
- Cognitive theorists believe that what happens inside the mind -- the mental processing of information -- is an important part of learning.
- Cognitive theorists view humans as active learners; what students do with information once they receive it determines how much they learn.
- Cognitive theorists believe that student attitudes, motivation, and beliefs can impact the learning process.
- Cognitive theorists believe students can self-regulate their learning through awareness of their thinking and management of learning strategies.
- Cognitive theorists believe the meaningfulness of knowledge determines how well it can be applied in new situations.
- Cognitive theorists emphasize the importance of social interaction and context in the learning process.
Gestalt Psychology: Gestalt psychology is one of the earliest theories of cognitive psychology. Founded by Germans Max Wertheimer, Kurt Koffka, and Wolfgang Kohler at the beginning of the twentieth century, gestalt psychology provided the first significant challenge to behaviorism. Concerned mainly with issues of perception, gestalt psychologists study the structure and organization that the mind imposes on sensory experience. Wertheimer recognized that our experience of sensory inputs is different from the inputs themselves -- as when two blinking lights create the impression of motion -- and concluded that humans are designed to experience meaningful wholes, and not just individual parts.
Gestalt psychologists also made contributions to learning and instruction. Their theory of insight learning posits that humans learn when they experience a state of cognitive disequilibrium, hypothesize possible solutions, and in a moment of insight, act on the appropriate solution. Wertheimer believed learning based on problem solving is much more effective than learning through memorization or rigid rules of logic (Hergenhahn & Olson, 1997).
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