The cognitive orientation to learning. Where behaviourists looked to the environment, those drawing on Gestalt turned to the individual’s mental processes. In other words, they were concerned with cognition – the act or process of knowing.
Many psychologists were not happy with behaviourism. There was a belief among some that there was too much of a focus on single events, stimuli and overt behaviour. Such criticism was especially strong from those who saw themselves as Gestalt psychologists (Gestalt meaning configuration or pattern in German). For them, perceptions or images should be approached as a pattern or a whole rather than as a sum of the component parts. Such thinking found its way into psychoanalysis and into the development of thinking about group functioning (perhaps most famously in the work of Kurt Lewin). It also had a profound effect on the way that many psychologists thought of learning. Where behaviourists looked to the environment, those drawing on Gestalt turned to the individual’s mental processes. In other words, they were concerned with cognition – the act or process of knowing.
Researchers like Jean Piaget, while recognizing the contribution of environment, explored changes in internal cognitive structure. He identified four stages of mental growth (sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational and formal operational). Jerome Bruner explored how mental processes could be linked to teaching (emphasizing, among other things, learning through discovery). Robert M. Gagné developed a model that highlighted eight different forms of learning – behaviourists identifying only a fragment of human capabilities.
James Hartley (1998) has usefully drawn out some of the key principles of learning associated with cognitive psychology. As he puts it: ‘Learning results from inferences, expectations and making connections. Instead of acquiring habits, learners acquire plans and strategies, and prior knowledge is important’ (1998: 18). The principles he identifies are:
- Instruction should be well-organized. Well-organized materials easier to learn and to remember.
- Instruction should be clearly structured. Subject matters are said to have inherent structures – logical relationships between key ideas and concepts – which link the parts together.
- The perceptual features of the task are important. Learners attend selectively to different aspects of the environment. Thus, the way a problem is displayed is important if learners are to understand it.
- Prior knowledge is important. Things must fit with what is already known if it is to be learnt.
- Differences between individuals are important as they will affect learning. Differences in ‘cognitive style’ or methods of approach influence learning.
- Cognitive feedback gives information to learners about their success or failure concerning the task at hand. Reinforcement can come through giving information – a ‘knowledge of results’ – rather than simply a reward.
Bruner, J. (1960, 1977) The Process of Education, Cambridge Ma.: Harvard University Press.
Gagné, R. M. (1985) The Conditions of Learning 4e, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
Hartley, J. (1998) Learning and Studying. A research perspective, London: Routledge.
Merriam, S. and Caffarella (1991, 1998) Learning in Adulthood. A comprehensive guide, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Piaget, J. (1926) The Child’s Conception of the World, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. It is difficult to know which of Piaget’s 50 or more books to choose here – but this and The Origin of Intelligence in Children are classic starting points. H. E. Gruber and J. J. Voneche (1977) The Essential Piaget: an interpretative reference and guide, London is a good collection. See, also, M. A. Boden’s (1979) Piaget, London: Fontana for a succinct introduction.
Tennant, M. (1988, 1997) Psychology and Adult Learning, London: Routledge.
Acknowledgment: Picture: learn by Mark Brennan. Sourced from Flickr and reproduced under a Creative Commons cc-by-nc-sa2 licence. http://www.flickr.com/photos/heycoach/1197947341.
How to cite this article: Smith, M. K. (1999). ‘The cognitive orientation to learning’, the encyclopedia of informal education. [http://infed.org/mobi/the-cognitive-orientation-to-learning/. Retrieved: insert date].
© Mark K. Smith 1999
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