Cognition and Instruction/Origins of Cognitive Psychology

Introduction to cognition and instruction edit

How do people learn? How can a better understanding of this question help teachers better support their students’ learning? What does it even mean to learn? Imagine if we could assemble all the greatest minds of all times around a table and listen in. Though not physically possible, the goal of this wiki-textbook is to come as close as we can to that scenario. We want to introduce people and their ideas while also dispelling some common misconceptions. Ultimately, our goal is to present this information in a manner that provides you with a practical and useful understanding of cognition and instruction.

As a result of reading this chapter, you will have a greater understanding of the journey we have taken to arrive at our current understanding of cognition and instruction, have a grasp of some vocabulary necessary to engage in the dialogue, and the open mind necessary to see and appreciate the various thinking explored by those who have ultimately contributed to the collective body of work surrounding cognition and instruction. We also hope that you will have a greater appreciation for our guiding principle: that this text be informed by current research and be practical in its scope and application. At the conclusion of this chapter, you should be able to do the following:

  • Describe major learning theories.
  • Identify characteristics of each learning theory.
  • Define the concepts related to each theory.
  • Describe the way in which each theory has contributed to teaching and learning practices.

Misconceptions edit

There are a number of common misconceptions surrounding the origins of various philosophies of educational thought. First, there is the misconception that the major branches of educational philosophy are, within themselves, homogeneous—that all behaviourists, as an example, thought the same way or that all humanists sought Maslow’s version of self-actualization. Second, there is the misconception that the various schools or philosophies of educational psychology—behaviourism, humanism, cognitive approach, etc.—are all mutually exclusive of each other and that there is no overlapping ideas. Next, there is the misconception that the various philosophies evolved over time as Learning 1.0, 2.0, 3.0 etc., and that each successive revelation extinguished the previous one. Finally, there is the misconception that the findings of each are divergent, whereas often we find that they come to similar conclusions albeit from different pathways. In this section we hope to not only dispel these misconceptions, but also show how educators can draw value, ideas and inspiration from each to fit the learning goals and learning needs of their individual students.

A brief history of knowledge edit

Among the educational resources available to teachers—whether from scholarly articles, teaching magazines, books or blogs—one can find an abundance of theories, strategies, suggestions, and folklore. The cartoon attempts to demonstrate this by bringing together a myriad of eras, ideas, and stereotypes into one, albeit unlikely, scene.

Socrates, Maslow, Freud, Vygotsky, Descartes, Piaget and Rover get together for drinks.

A basic understanding of this history can sometimes help disentangle the disparate bits and pieces, identify their sources, and begin the process of evaluating them in terms of informing your professional practice. On July 1, 2016, the Guardian published an article headlined: “No grades, no timetable: Berlin school turns teaching upside down.”[1] How would this information inform a teacher, a parent, or person responsible for the education of children? The traditional fork in the road suggests the reader either take the path of ready adoption or the path of summary dismissal. An understanding of cognition and instruction as it has developed and continues to develop permits a third path of examination and evaluation.

Psychology, the word, traces its meaning to the study of the soul and later, in the mid-17th century, to the study of mind.[2] As a science, psychology can be traced back to the late 19th century to people such as Wilhelm Wundt, sometimes referred to as the founder of modern psychology. Wundt defined psychology as the study of mind and consciousness and posited that we could better understand the mind through a scientific study of consciousness.[3] The study of learning and education, goes back much further. Rousseau and other philosophers of the early 19th century began to propose radically different approaches to education: rather than the traditional teacher centred methods, letting children learn through active enquiry, discovery and manipulation.[4]

Greek philosophy and foundations of thought edit

The philosophical struggle surrounding what knowledge is, and how it can be achieved can be traced back much further—24 centuries earlier to thinkers such as Aristotle, his teacher Plato, and his teacher Socrates. As these thinkers wrestled with the ideas of knowledge, they created and left us artifacts of their struggle.

Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle engage in thought.

Socrates is credited with teachings suggesting that wisdom is the understanding of one's own ignorance. Perhaps more profoundly enduring is his method of arriving at answers through the creation and resolution of a series of smaller questions. This Socratic method is seen in the scientific method and is the basis for critical thinking--learning how to think and defend one’s own thoughts and thought processes, rather than just learning what to think.[5]

Unlike his teachers who believed that knowledge was largely a divine gift--albeit something that could be developed--Aristotle believed that knowledge was largely based on perceptions. This idea, empiricism, is carried forward to observation-based research.

Although many of their ideas have been either discredited or eclipsed, many others remain and continue to influence. Later philosophers would launch their teachings either in support of, or in opposition to their teachings. René Descartes, argued in favour of rationalism rather than empiricism, positing that reason is the chief source and test of knowledge. This is seen in his often quoted, “Cogito ergo sum,” I think therefore I am. Descartes’ rationalism appears more in line with Plato than his empiricist student Aristotle.[6]

Religion, politics and whether one should talk about wisdom edit

As Socrates discovered, not everyone thinks the same way about knowledge (He was executed on this point of difference.) Philosophers could run afoul of religious and political leaders whose views of knowledge would be threatened by different perspectives. Empiricism, unlike rationalism, was in contrast to and in conflict with many institutions and teachers such as those of the Christian church who, like the Greeks of Socrates’ day believed that knowledge originates with God or the gods, e.g.: For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding (Proverbs 2:6, ESV).

Philosopher John Locke, one of the first English empiricists, argued that knowledge came from experiences drawn from or developed from perceptions of the senses and of reflection. He argued against Plato’s view of innate knowledge—and Descartes’ rationalism—suggesting rather that we are born with a blank mind or tabula rasta. Empiricism is foundational to the scientific method. Rather than people being born with knowledge, or knowledge being revealed by God, for example, knowledge could be gained through observation, over time, from experiences. Scientific experiments could provide these experiences for learning.

The discourse of knowledge, which spans two millennia, continues to inform our understanding of knowledge and learning. It is important to note that much of the generally referenced body of knowledge is Eurocentric, and there are other explanations of knowledge and other theories and beliefs that guide pedagogy. The First Peoples Principles of Learning demonstrate a discourse that is not based on the lineage of thought discussed above, yet is also not altogether distinct. This is demonstrated in the second principle: “Learning is holistic, reflexive, reflective, experiential, and relational.”[7]

Cognition and learning in the 19th century edit

The Scientific Revolution opened new doors to the understanding of our world and ourselves in the world. “Religious and hermetic traditions gave way to observation and experiment, first in astronomy and physics, then in biology, and eventually in psychology. Nicolas Copernicus and Galileo Galilei challenged the assumption of a heliocentric universe; Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace challenged the discontinuity of species; John B. Watson challenged the concept of mind; and Skinner was the most thoroughgoing of them all—he challenged the very idea of human agency.”[8]

Bacon, Dewey and the foundation of functionalism and pragmatism edit

Other thinkers, such as Francis Bacon, suggested that knowledge was derived from actually working with something—a craft or a technology—rather than just introspectively thinking about it, and that this knowledge could be demonstrated empirically[8]. John Dewey and others extended this to suggest that the mind “…[mediated] between the environment and the needs of the organism” (Oxford Companion to the Mind, 2006, p. 231). Dewey suggested that what was important was the purpose or function of the mind, not its physical structure [8]. What became known as functionalism was also built on the ideas of Pavlov and Darwin. In the 1890s, Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov made the connection of mind to brain. Earlier, Charles Darwin had asserted that the process of natural selection resulted in evolution of species [8].

A new view, pragmatism, built on functionalism, asserted that "mind and behaviour were acts of context" that could be observed and understood through science[8](p. 231). This logically led to what would become behaviourism.

Cognition and learning into the early 20th century edit

Building on the tide of research, scientists were delving further into the mind. Co-contributing to both the findings and the failures of this era was the lack of ethical oversight guiding these researchers.

Wilhelm Wundt and experimental psychology edit

Among the first to apply science to psychology was Wilhelm Wundt, credited with founding experimental psychology in the late 1800s [8]. His examination of consciousness informed what would become known as structuralism—the attempt to break down the structure of consciousness into a set of basic elements in the same way as a chemist might break down a compound[9]. Although his findings are no longer considered reliable due to the experimental methods he employed, at least two things remain. First, Wundt’s work inspired others to develop more defensible experiments, specifically in behaviorism. Second, much of what Wundt cared about—mental functions and perceptual processes—would influence cognitive psychology[9].

John Watson and behaviorism edit

The term behaviourism was coined by John Watson in 1913. He asserted that for psychology to align with the requirement of scientific objectiveness, it would need to focus on what could be objectively observed—behaviour [6]. Watson, Guthrie, Thorndike and Skinner all contributed to our understanding of learning under the very broad umbrella of behaviorism. In this chapter, we will look at the contributions of Edward Thorndike and B. F. Skinner.

Edward Thorndike and connectionism edit

Born in 1874, Thorndike was an experimental psychologist who, like his behaviorist contemporaries, drew connections between the results of animal experiments and human learning. One thing that separated Thorndike from many other behaviourists was his interest and focus on education.

Through his experiments, Thorndike developed a series of what he called laws of learning including the laws of effect, exercise, and readiness. A brief summary is shown in the table right. Thorndike’s law of effect, as revised, suggests that rewards strengthen connections; positive experiences associated with learning strengthen the learning. This is considered his greatest contribution to educational psychology but is also subject to criticism [10]. This criticism comes in at least two forms. Gestalt theorists would assert that Thorndike’s ideas were not incorrect, rather incomplete; that people learned in ways other than building mental stimulus-response connections. Later theorists would assert that, whereas positive experiences strengthen learning, this learning might be caused by some mechanism other that stimulus-response connections [10].

Mayer [10] suggests that it is Thorndike's practical application of empirical data that keeps his influence alive. Thorndike’s work with the US military--and its effect of other militarily-molded fields such as aviation also helped to spread the enduring influence of his work where it is still taught and required to be known by flight instructors in Canada and the USA.

Educational Psychology in the World: According to the US Department of Transportation, Thorndike’s laws of readiness, exercise and effect are considered universally accepted and applicable to all types of learning. In addition to these three, primacy, recency and intensity round out what are considered by the FAA to be laws of learning.[11]

B. F. Skinner and Operant Conditioning edit

Born in 1904, Skinner like Thorndike was interested in how psychology could be applied to education. He used the results of animal experiments and added them to what was known of human learning. Unlike Pavlov’s Classical conditioning which created an association between a conditioned stimulus and a unconditioned stimulus to trigger an involuntary response, Skinner’s Operant conditioning applied reinforcement or punishment after a specific, voluntary behaviour to form an association with the behaviour and the reward or punishment [8][6].

Operant conditioning begins with a Discriminative stimulus (SD) which creates the occasion or environment for a behavioural response (R). The Reinforcing stimulus (SR) is given following (R).

Discriminative Stimulus




Reinforcing Stimulus


Positive Reinforcement Teacher gives students a study block before a unit test Student uses the time to study Teacher praises student
Negative Reinforcement Teacher gives students a study block before a unit test Student uses the time to study Teacher removes an assignment
Punishment (provide negative reinforcement) Teacher gives students a study block before a unit test Student does not use the time to study Teacher gives an additional assignment
Punishment (remove positive reinforcement) Teacher gives students a study block before a unit test Student does not use the time to study Teacher makes student study at lunch

Table based on Schunk[6].

A visit to a school classroom in 1953 was the impetus for creating and testing teaching machines[8]. Skinner was troubled that the teacher was violating what he believed to be two research-grounded principles of education.

Figure 1. Computerized Version of Skinner's Programmed Instruction

He believed that students needed to know if their answers were right or not and he believed that students should be able to work at their own pace. These ideas are consistent with his view of behaviourism. The solution was not to retrain the teacher, but rather to create a teaching machine and a system of programmed instruction (Figure 1). He believed that this educational technology would be an improvement in terms of both efficiency and effectiveness of what was being accomplished poorly by teachers [8]. Although these teaching machines fell out of favour, they are the antecedent for early electronic learning systems and an influence for intelligent tutoring systems which were informed by a more cognitive approach.

Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers and the Humanist Response to Learning. edit

In response to behaviourism and psychoanalysis, Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers and others asserted that there were fundamental differences between humans and animals. Findings based on experiments using animals, regardless of the reliability or trustworthiness of the methods used, should not make up the whole of what we know of humans and human learning. Maslow, now known for his pyramidic hierarchy of needs, argued that humans have unique needs that must be met. He argued that motivation is important to reach a higher level of supported learning. From an educational perspective, students' basic needs must be met before learning can happen. Although his theory has faced challenges regarding specific ranking of needs--e.g. People putting their own safety at risk to save others--educators can still benefit from remembering that learning is easier when the student’s basic needs are met. Breakfast programs, anti-bully programs, safe play areas and big buddies can all promote an environment where learning has a chance.[6].

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs Pyramid

Rogers, while holding some of the same principles as Maslow, held that humans were innately motivated to learn and didn’t need to be externally motivated. He lamented that the school system extinguished this natural curiosity and eagerness to learn and discover[6]. Rogers posited that for education to be meaningful it had to be student-centric: being relevant to the student, include student involvement in both cognitive and affective domains, and is both self-initiated and self-evaluated. He believed that there is little value in learning that can be taught, and that teachers would be better off facilitating student learning. He believed that this would lead to students perceiving their learning as meaningful and beneficial to self improvement, and that would provide the internal motivation to continue learning[6].

A number of principles can be drawn from the humanistic perspective to learning. The following list is drawn from Schunk[6]

  1. Show positive regard for students.
  2. Separate students from their actions.
  3. Encourage personal growth by providing students with choices and opportunities
  4. Facilitate learning by providing resources and encouragement.

The tenets of this humanist approach demonstrate the overlap in the various learning perspectives. There are many similarities in principles of humanism and constructivist approaches[6]

Gestalt Theory edit

In the early twentieth-century, a group of German psychologists started a movement referred to as Gestalt movement (Schunk, 2012). The word “gestalt” means “unified whole” in psychology[12]. Individuals perceive objects as organized and complete patterns, not as discrete elements. The wholes are structured using the principles of grouping[13]. In fact, Gestalt principles are the grouping laws of organizing perceptual scenes. Contrary to the behaviorists’ claim that the whole is equal to the sum of its parts, Gestalt theorists claimed that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts[13]. According to the Gestalt theorists, the whole is meaningful and would lose meaning if reduced to its individual parts[13].

Gestalt principles for interaction design. edit

There are several Gestalt laws that describe how the perceptual experiences are organized[12]. These organizational principles can be used to create meaningful and easy to perceive visual layouts that correspond to organized mental structures that exist in memory[12]. Furthermore, Gestalt laws enable designers to recognize the sources that add vagueness and ambiguity to the design patterns[14]. Gestalt laws provide the foundation for instructional multimedia interface design Chang and Wilson[14]. For example, Chang, Wilson, and Dooley[14] used 11 Gestalt laws to improve the visual layout of an instructional multimedia design. They were able to enhance the learning effectiveness of a multimedia application by using the following Gestalt rules: balance/symmetry, continuation, closure, figure-ground, focal point, isomorphic correspondence, Prägnanz, proximity, similarity, simplicity, and unity/ harmony.

As a Gestalt law of perceptual organization, the law of proximity states that individuals tend to associate and group together the objects or shapes that are close or proximate to one another. Chang, Wilson, and Dooley used the law of proximity in the visual interface design of their multimedia application (Figure 1). In screen visualization of Figure 1 different elements are identified and all the related elements are placed within the same closed section. The navigation control keys are located at the bottom of the screen and the index menu is located on the left side of the screen. Furthermore, the space and the boxes create a distinct separation between groups of items. This use of space allows learners to separate the function of elements from one another.

Figure 2. Gestalt Laws of Proximity, Similarity, and Continuity

Another Gestalt law of perceptual organization that is used in Figure 2 is the law of similarity. The law of similarity states that individuals tend to link objects or shapes that are similar and treat them like a distinct group. In Figure 2, the color and the shape used for the navigation buttons allow learners to recognize the navigation buttons. Furthermore, the color and the shape of the bordered area around the index menu are different from the shape and color of the bordered area around the text and the shape and color of the bordered area around the graphics.

In Figure 2, the Gestalt law of continuity is used to construct visual elements that are continuous. For example, the images on the right hand side of the screen are placed in a way to direct learner’s eye movement from one image to the next image in the row.

Figure 3. Gestalt Principle of Balance/Symmetry

Another Gestalt law of perceptual organization is the law of balance. Chang, Wilson, and Dooley[14] have used the law of balance/symmetry because a desirable psychological stability is attained when “equalizing the visual weight of on-screen components” (p. 14).

As illustrated in Figure 3, there is balance between the text buttons on the right hand side of the screen (2a) and the text buttons on the left hand side of the screen (2b). Additionally, there is balance between the title on the top left hand side (1a) and the buttons on the bottom left hand side (1b).

Problem solving through representation and restructuring. edit

Gestalt theorists claim that human learning involves visualizing the problem and the solution[12]. Problem-solving is influenced by how the problem is represented in the problem solver’s mind[12]. The problem could be solved if the problem solver comprehends how the problem elements fit together and, then, restructure the problem elements to reveal new possibilities[15]. Kohler[16] presented this idea in the circumference problem (Figure 4).

Figure 4. Circle Problem[17]

The problem asks to determine the length of the line x if the radius of the circle has the length of r. The problem illustrates a circle, within which a triangle is built in the upper left quadrant. In order to solve the problem, the problem solver must change the representation of the elements to “a small rectangle in the upper left quadrant, with x being the diagonal between the corners” (Kohler as cited in Goldstein)[17](p. 337). When realizing that x is the diagonal of a rectangle, the problem solver can restructure the representation by drawing the other diagonal of the rectangle. Since the diagonals of a rectangle are of equal length, the rectangle’s diagonal x equals the circle’s radius r.

Gestalt psychology’s emphasis on the role of organization in perception and learning is considered to have an influence on the modern information processing perspective[12]. However, Gestalt theory fails to offer a detailed description of how problem-solving strategies could be learned[15].

Instructional application edit

Gestalt theorists provided very general suggestions for the application of problem-solving instruction in education[15]. Wertheimer[18] proposed that in order to facilitate problem-solving, teachers should arrange the elements of the situation to help students better perceive how the elements connect to the whole. The main factor in learning to solve problems is to grasp the structurally fundamental features and to distinguish elements that are fundamental from the elements that are peripheral (Wertheimer as cited in Gredler[15]). In the process of problem solving, teachers must provide hints or cues in order to assist learners overcoming their misconceptions and incorrect perspectives and reorganizing their perspectives on the problem[15]. Werthemier (as cited in Gredler[15]) suggested that students’ ability to transfer learning from one situation to another should be assessed and the assessment should be based on solving related problems. Students will not be able to notice the similarities of the related problems if their learning process was limited to rote memorization[15].

Educational psychology from 1920 to 1960 edit

Jean Piaget and Theory of Cognitive Development edit

Piaget was a Swiss biologist who is most known as a cognitive developmental psychologist[12]. He pursued graduate studies in biology but completed his postdoctoral studies in psychology[13]. Although Piaget is known as a cognitive-developmental psychologist and not as an educational psychologist, his impact on education has been profound[12]. In fact, the research on cognitive development serves as the backbone for curriculum studies and associated instructional practices[12]. Following the completion of his studies at the Sorbonne, he was appointed research director at the Rousseau Institute in Geneva[13].

In Rousseau Institute, he started studying the development of intelligence[13]. The purpose of his work was to discover the reasoning processes that are performed by individuals at different stages throughout cognitive development[13]. Piaget rejected the idea that knowledge is static existing in the objects out in the world and out of individual entities[15]. For Piaget, knowledge is acquired through a process of interaction with the surrounding world, and intelligence is a continuous self-constructing process[15].

Developmental processes edit

Piaget’s theory of cognitive development is considered to be a bottom-up theory. He claimed that cognitive development starts from lower levels of reflexive behavior and progresses toward more complex structures[19]. Starting from the bottom, children build knowledge through reflexes, advance to more complex logical reasoning about concrete objects or events, and reach the top rung of the hierarchy where they can reason abstractly and hypothetically[12].

Piaget proposed that there are four factors that influence cognitive development. These factors include: biological maturation, activity, social transmission, and equilibration[20]. Biological maturation is genetically programmed[21]. The only influence that parents and teachers have on child’s physical development is to ensure that the child receives good nutrition and health care[21]. Activity is another factor that influences cognitive development. As children mature physically, they start interacting with the physical environment[21]. By progressing toward a more advanced stage of cognitive development, children begin interacting with the people around them[21]. Learning from social interactions or social transmission is another factor that influences cognitive development. Finally, cognitive development is influenced by the process of equilibration, which is discussed in the following section.

Equilibration. edit

Piaget proposed that when children interact with their physical and social environment, they organize information into a set of interrelated mental representations. This mental representation of the world or the building block of cognition is called schema[22]. Piaget[22] defined a schema as “a cohesive, repeatable action sequence possessing component actions that are tightly interconnected and governed by a core meaning” (p. 240). He proposed that knowledge construction is the process of equilibration, in which cognitive structure assimilates and accommodates to generate new knowledge[23].

Assimilation refers to integrating the external reality into the existing cognitive structure[21]. Piaget[24] describes assimilation as “the incorporation of an external element, for example, an object or event, into a sensorimotor or conceptual scheme of the subject” (p.5). The example given by Piaget[20] is digestion of food and the inclusion of a special ingredient in the leaves (chlorophyll) in the growth and survival of plants. Assimilation does not mean passive registering of reality, nor does it mean a unilateral relation between an external stimulus and a response (S-->R) [24]. Rather, it means modifying or filtering the stimulus through an internal structure, which in turn is refined through this process (S<-->R)[12]. Accommodation is a process of modifying or reframing individual's mental representation (i.e., schema) to fit the new information[25].

When the internal cognitive structures become consistent with the external environmental reality, an optimal state of equilibrium is produced[23]. The key impetus for cognitive development is seeking to resolve a conflict[12]. The state of cognitive conflict is called disequilibrium[23]. When learners encounter and recognize discrepancies between prior knowledge and the newly acquired information, they may try to resolve these discrepancies by actively finding ways to reconcile or restructure their understanding[21]. The process of moving from a phase of disequilibrium to equilibrium is referred to as equilibration[21]. In fact, dynamic equilibration, which is an internal attempt to generate a state of equilibrium, is a constant regulation of behavior (Piaget as cited in Bringuier[26]). According to Piaget, development occurs in stages and children’s learning is constrained by their developmental level[22]. If children’s critical stage transitions have not begun, the cognitive conflict cannot be successfully resolved via equilibration[12]. However, research studies fail to provide evidence on Piaget’s stage theory[27][28][29].

Example: Schema, assimilation and accommodation
Anna has developed schemas for a chair, a bed, and a sofa.
Upright backHorizontal surfaceLong seat with an upright vertical position
4 legsWe can sleep on itHas cushions
Only fits one personhas a mattress and coverthere is room for two or more people to be on it
The first time Anna sees a futon, she immediately searches her stored schema to see if futon fits with anything she has already encountered.
Horizontal surfaceLong seat with an upright vertical position
We can sleep on itHas cushions
has a mattress and coverthere is room for two or more people to be on it
Can be folded up and unfolded again
Used as a sofa when folded to upright position
Used as a bed when folded to horizontal position
Because futon has some elements of the sofa and the bed, Anna is able to blend it into her existing schemas. She comes to understand futon by linking it to what she already knows. As new information is added into Anna’s existing schema, she experiences a cognitive process known as assimilation. However, unlike the bed or the sofa, futon is foldable. When Anna notices the difference between a bed, a sofa, and a futon, she creates a new schema for futon. This construction of new schema is called accommodation.

Implications for instruction edit

Piaget’s research has generated many suggested implications for instruction and learning. According to Schunk[12], implications of Piaget’s theory for education include:

  • Understanding students’ cognitive development
  • Creating appropriate disequilibrium
  • Allowing active involvement of students in learning
  • Engaging learners in social interaction

Understanding students’ cognitive development. edit

Students in a classroom operate at different levels[15]. While some students might be able to successfully respond to teacher’s instructions, some other students might struggle and fail to process information effectively. Learners are diverse in their capacity to assimilate new information because their cognitive framework is not ready to incorporate the new information[15]. Thus, according to Schunk[12], teachers need to determine students’ level of functioning and offer different instructions to address the diverse needs of students in the classroom.

Creating appropriate disequilibrium. edit

Teachers need to recognize learners’ readiness to build a logical cognitive structure. Building a logical cognitive structure require experiencing cognitive conflicts and feeling the need to resolve the conflict. Cognitive conflict or disequilibrium can be created by allowing students to participate in problem-solving activities. Creating appropriate disequilibrium require providing information that is not too difficult to interrupt accommodation and not too easy to be assimilated without difficulty[12]. The errors and misunderstandings arrived from problem-solving should be treated as clues to provide feedback, which in turn will promote disequilibrium.

Allowing active involvement of students in learning. edit

Piaget saw cognitive development as an active process and believed that children are active in their learning, not passive[12]. Instead of using verbal instructions for the transmission of knowledge, Piaget[30] suggested using active methods that would require learners to engage in active inquiry of subjects that appeal to them. He proposed offering mixed model curricula to allow hands-on projects and experiments in classes. According to Piaget[30], the basic requirement of education is “to introduce both liberal arts and science students to experimental procedures and the free activity such training implies” (p. 35).

Engaging learners in social interaction. edit

In addition to allowing experimentation, setting up collaboration and social interaction should be a significant component of classroom teaching and learning[30]. Piaget suggested that the classroom should be “a center of real (and experimental) activities carried out in common, so that logical intelligence may be elaborated through action and social exchange” (p. 47).

Teaching Scenario Using Piaget's Theory
Tom’s students have already learned that quadrilaterals have: 1) straight line segments, and 2) four sides. As a new lesson, Tom wants to teach students the classification relationship between rectangles and squares. Tom used to give his students direct instruction on how to identify different features of quadrilaterals and then ask them whether on not squares are rectangles. This time, he wants to try a different approach for teaching students the difference between squares and rectangles.

In his new approach, Tom presents five squares and five rectangles of different size and color to small groups of two. The groups were asked to assemble the shapes into collections of squares and rectangles.

Amy places all the small shapes together on one side and all the big shapes on the other side. When Tom asks Amy to show him the squares and the rectangles, she says that all the shapes are similar because they all have four sides. When Tom asks her again to place the squares and the rectangles on a different pile, Amy experiences cognitive disequilibrium. She starts thinking that there is a difference between a square and a rectangle that she is not realizing. She tries to look for the difference in order to break free from the unpleasant feeling of cognitive disequilibrium.

Amy’s group member, Rosie, realizes that the difference lies in the length of the sides of the square and rectangle. While all the four sides of the square are of equal length, only the opposite sides of the rectangle are the same length. However, what confuses Rosie is the size of the shapes. As soon as she realizes that the size of the shapes is not important, she starts looking at the length of the sides of each shape in order to distinguish the squares from the rectangles.

Amy and Rosie are able to solve the problem of classifying the squares and rectangles by restructuring their pre-existing knowledge, by receiving guidance from Tom, and by looking at each other's work. Using their prior knowledge of the quadrilaterals, Amy and Rosie actively worked to discover the disequilibrium and to modify an existing schema through the process of accommodation.

Adapted from Bentham[31].

Lev Vygotsky and Cultural-Historical Theory of Human Development edit

Vygotsky was a Russian psychologist who died of tuberculosis at the age of 37[32]. He began his research in 1920s [13]. In contrast to Gestalt theorists’ focus on perception and Piaget’s focus on cognition, Vygotsky’s [33] focus was primarily on the importance of language in human learning. His theory is referred to as the cultural-historical theory of human development[34].

Understanding the relationship between learning and development edit

Vygotsky analyzed the interaction between learning and development from different theoretical positions. He rejected Piaget’s theoretical position on the assumption that development is “a precondition of learning but never the result of it”[33](p. 30). Furthermore, he rejected the position that maturation prepares and enables the way for learning and, subsequently, the learning process triggers and advances the maturation process[35]. Although Vygotsky rejected these positions, his analysis of these theoretical positions led into building his own position on the relationship between development and learning. Vygotsky[33] proposed that the foundation for learning initiates long before they start school. He claimed that what children learn at school is always connected to their prior history of learning. For example, young children engage in informal mathematical thinking before they begin to receive arithmetic instruction in school [35]. There is no doubt that children’s learning before school is different from their school learning. Although children’s learning at school involves the assimilation of principal scientific materials, their learning has started before attending school by asking the first questions to assimilate new object’s names[36]. Vygotsky[36] argued that before receiving any formal arithmetic instruction to solve addition, subtraction, and division problems, children have encountered early counting experiences. He suggested that learning and maturation are closely inter-related.

The nature of play edit

In 1931, Vygotsky and El’konin started their research on the role of play in the cultural development of children[34]. Vygotsky’s contribution to this theory of development was brief because of his early death[34]. El’konin carried on and developed a comprehensive theory of play based on the discussions he had with Vygotsky[34]. According to El’konin[37], Vygotsky believed that “imagination begins to develop through play. Before play there is no imagination” (p. 14). According to Vygotsky[38], the development of children’s creative imagination begins with playful activities and progresses to higher mental functioning, which involves consciously controlled behavior that is influenced by inner speech. He proposed that young children express their ideas through play, which serves as a substitute for language. Unlike Piaget who distinguished between imaginative thinking and realistic thinking, Vygotsky considered imagination as a conscious process of meaning making[34]. In fact, Vygotsky criticized Piagetian theorists who viewed imagination as an egocentric and immature thinking that will be replaced by realistic thinking in adulthood[34]. Vygotsky claimed that imagination is a direct and logical process and that there is a dynamic relationship between imagination, thinking and emotion[38]. For example, young children’s drawing and story telling indicate that imagination is a conscious process [38]. Imaginative play allows children to detach the meaning and the function of an object from the object itself. This detachment enables preschoolers to start exchanging the function of one object with another object that has similar symbolic functions. According to Vygotsky[35], when children play:

. . . thought is separated from objects and action arises from ideas rather than from thing: a piece of wood begins to be a doll and a stick becomes a horse . . . the child does not do it at once because [it] is terribly difficult for a child to sever thought (the meaning of the word) from object. Play provides a transitional stage in this direction whenever an object (for example, a stick) becomes a pivot for severing the meaning of a horse from a real horse. (p. 97)

Contrary to Piaget, Vygotsky proposed that children are less imaginative than adults and have less control over their imagination[34]. Playing activities enable children to develop more control over their imagination[34].

The role of language in thought development. edit

Vygotsky[36] emphasized the role of language development in play and in imagination development. He suggested, through pretend play, children engage in internal dialogue with themselves that enables them to develop their language. The development of language allows children to develop their imagination[36]. Vygotsky[36] claimed, “speech frees the child from the immediate impression of an object. It gives the child the power to represent and think about an object that he has not seen” (p. 346). Only with language a child can break free from the immediate perceptual field and move into an imaginary play situation. In fact, together with language, imagination becomes closely associated with thinking in order to enable children to find meaning in the world around them[36].

Sociocultural perspective of Vygotsky’s theory. edit

Vygotsky argued that imaginative activities are embodied in culture[34]. The way children construct cultural interpretation of situations is through mediation of cultural tools. Cultural tools consist of real tools such as computers, supportive technology tools for addressing learning difficulties, mobile devices, etc.[21] and cognitive or psychological tools such as language, diagrams, maps, algebraic symbolism, writing, schemes, etc.[39]. As individuals internalize cultural activities, they begin to develop a “cultural tool kit” and transform the cultural tools into their own psychological tools[40]. As individuals’ psychological tools develop, the nature of imaginative activities changes from the play activities in childhood to more productive imaginative activities in adolescence and adulthood[34]. In fact, the internalization of a range of cultural tools mediates social interpersonal activities, which allow the development of individuals’ psychological or cognitive tools[34].

Vygotsky believed that the origin of imagination is social interaction. He stated “imagination operates not freely, but directed by someone else’s experience, as if according to someone else’s instructions”[41] (p. 17). Vygotsky’s emphasis on the notion of cultural and cognitive internalization in development is expressed as follows:

Any function in the child's cultural development appears twice, or on two planes. First it appears on the social plane, and then on the psychological plane. First it appears between people as an interpsychological category, and then within the child as an intrapsychological category.[35](p. 57)

Cognitive changes occur as teachers and learners share cultural tools and work together on a task that is difficult for the learner to execute single-handedly[35]. The concepts and tasks that a learner can master with the help of another knowledgeable individual are said to occupy the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD)[35]. In fact, ZPD refers to higher mental functioning that occurs depending on the development of learners’ self-awareness, their language, and their actions in the world[12].

Zone of Proximal Development in Classroom

Ferholt and Lecusay[42] studied the pedagogy of creative play by creating a zone of proximal development. In a K-1 classroom, they were able to create a zone of proximal development in which the teacher and the students worked together to enact a children’s piece of literature. The play was based on a fantasy novel for children. In a collaborative manner, students and the teacher discussed how to take on play roles and how to co-construct the setting for the play.

In the first phase, the teacher, Michael, asked the students whether there should be different characters that were not used in the original play script. Michael took an active role and started the discussion in an authoritative manner. He kept asking the students “why” to encourage them to provide a reason for their statements. Michael’s questioning would correct students’ thinking and speech.

Nancy: I think that we should put a parrot . . . a magic parrot (p. 64)!

Pearl: I don’t like different characters (p. 64).

Michael: You don’t like different characters? Why? (p. 64)

Pearl: Because, maybe, if we don’t know how to do it with different characters (p. 64).

Michael: We don’t know what to say, but we could make up lines . . .(p. 64)

In the second phase, Micheal divided the class and engaged students in an active dialogue to organize the play. This time, the students presented arguments and responded to each other’s arguments.

Nancy: I think that we should keep on adding new characters because if . . . we don’t really do like fun things then we will be bored doing the same thing over and over again (p.65).

Michael: OK. Over to this side. Why not? (p. 65)

Pearl: Um, like, you guys are doing it like, um, like Sleeping Beauty, like, the queen, she has like a pet a, a crow, and, um, she just talks to it and then, then she, it doesn’t speak (p. 67).

Rachel: Like, cause it’s our play and we can say whatever we want in our play (p. 67).

Micheal explained the situation to the student to make them realize that their argument does not yield a solution.

Michael: So we have two sides: this side wants to keep the book the same [and] this side wants to keep the book, make the book different. OK? Neither one is ee-- better than the other, it’s just, what you like, vanilla or chocolate? Right? (p. 71)

Nancy: . . . So like this team could make their own and that team could make theirs (p. 72).

Pearl: Well I only wanted to have one . . . because everyone is my best friend (p. 74, 75).

Michael: She wants you guys all to be in one big play. She . . . doesn’t want to play just by her self and these guys, she wants to do a play with you guys too. You see what I’m saying? Nancy (p. 75).

In response to Pearl’s comment about friendship, Nancy and the other children on the opposite group voiced solidarity with Pearl and started crossing to her group. They were able to assert their voices in challenging ways instead of responding to the teacher’s articulation of their arguments.

Alice: We still could have two plays but we could do – but you mean your idea was one play with all together, and our plan to do two (p. 77).

Michael: . . . so we have one play where we have new characters, and we have one play where we have just the same characters. . . . You still look sad, why, Pearl? (p. 78)

Pearl: Because, I don’t . . . want to do– (p. 78).

Maya: All of us are gonna do it your way, then you guys are gonna do it our way (p. 78).

Pearl: Oh – you mean . . . like our way first and then when it’s done we could do it like your way (p. 78).

At this point, students provided solutions to the conflict. They started presenting new arguments, which led to a modified role of the teacher, as Micheal became less possessive and more engaged in developing solutions to the dilemmas that were beyond his knowledge and expectation.

Instructional applications edit

Vygotsky’s ideas in cultural historical theory of human development lend themselves well to instruction and student learning. The use of cognitive tools (e.g., stories, metaphors, images, etc.) provides middle school children with a curriculum that mediates their imaginative abilities[43]. The use of story provides a cognitive tool that mediates children’s imaginative activities. According to Egan[44] “the defining feature of stories, as distinct from other kinds of narratives - like arguments, histories, and scientific reports - is that they orient our feelings about their contents … Stories are “crystallized” in culture and therefore they could be used as mediators, tools for engaging that imagination of children (p. 56). Playing with children at an early age enhances their ability to learn reading and writing because playing will allow them to develop symbolic functions[35]. Furthermore, educators should take a mediator role in planning children’s play. In an experiment conducted by El’konin [45], children’s playing activities were studied. After taking five- and six-year-old children on a field trip to a historical railway, El’konin expected that the children would incorporate the newly acquired experience in their in-class play scenarios. However, children did not engage in the railway pretend play after returning from the field trip. In a second trial, when the same group of children were taken to the railway station, they were assisted by the teacher to learn about the roles of the stoker, the conductor, and the engineer. When children’s attention was directed to the new objects and the new roles of people working in the railway setting, children were able to play back the scenario and to act out different roles in the classroom. Therefore, teachers’ role is to expand the variety of themes in children’s play by introducing and explaining various social roles[46]. Without assisting children to comprehend the meaning of the socio-cultural relationships, their play will not be fully developed[46].

Listen in edit

Leif teaches Learning Theories and Cognitive Instruction at a local University. Some of his students started posing questions about the learning theories.

Cannice: We have been talking about the learning theories throughout the course. But, there are still some issues that leave us confused about the learning theories.

Leif: What are the issues?

Carmine: Well, the different learning theories that we have been studying come across as different but they are not very distinct from each other. Piaget, Vygotsky, Bandura, and other theorists differ in their perspectives on the nature of learning and development but, in fact, some of their ideas overlap.

Amy: Yes, this is what really confuses me too. Every theory that I read, I tend to agree with. Shouldn’t I be able to make a distinction between each theory and be able to select the one that I am persuaded by? I want to follow one theory but it appears to be impossible when there is an overlap between these theories.

Leif: Indeed. What most cognitive theories have in common is the fact that learning involves regulation in individual’s knowledge, way of thinking, and ability to perform tasks. Most theorists propose that learning does not occur automatically and unconsciously. Rather, individuals build their own knowledge.

Amy: So, do you expect us to be a cognitive developmental theorist, a cultural-historical theorist, and a social cognitive theorist?

Leif: No, you are not expected to adopt all of these theories. You can select your preferred theory yet, at the same time, borrow from other theories the elements that are lacking from your selected theory. Your selected theory might not address everything you want. Therefore, you can adopt the missing elements from other theories. For example, my professor in graduate school was engaged in cognitive learning research. As much as I was interested in my professor’s cognitive learning studies, I was intrigued by another professor’s developmental studies. So, I adopted from both theories. There is nothing wrong with borrowing from both theories.

Cannice: It makes more sense now. You are suggesting that we need to take a multifaceted approach.

Leif: My suggestion is that instead of differentiating yourself as one theorist or another, you should try to specify the type of learning that raises your interest. This way, you can show preference to a theory, find the missing links between different theories, and be open to borrow from other theories as you see fit. This is how theories are modified.

Carmine: Thanks Leif.

Adopted from Schunk[12].

Think and Reflect edit

Identify the learning theory and the theorist that each of these teachers is representing. edit

Teacher A I think there is an unchanging world of knowledge. Knowledge is a fixed entity that is influenced by the objective world. Learning is based on the acquisition of facts, skills, and concept. The essential elements for student’s learning are repetition and guided practice. My teaching is more oriented towards transmitting knowledge to students. As a teacher, it is my role to supervise students and to correct inaccurate answers. I expect my students to be active listeners and follow directions.
Teacher B I think there is a changing world of knowledge, which is individually constructed in the social world. Knowledge is built on what learners bring with them into the educational setting. Student’s learning is an active construction of new knowledge and restructuring of preexisting knowledge, which requires a process of drawing connections between existing knowledge and new information. My teaching should involve tasks that are challenging and guiding student’s thought processes toward in-depth understanding of the material. As a teacher, it is my role to act as a facilitator and remain aware of students' thinking. Although peer-to-peer interaction does not necessarily play a role, it can stimulate thinking and encourage active questioning. I expect my students to be active thinkers, interpreters, explainers, and questioners.
Teacher C I think knowledge is constructed within a social context and is built on active interaction with others. Student’s learning takes place through socially constructed situations where learners collaboratively contribute to co-construct their learning based on the meanings and values that are socially defined. My teaching should shift from the transmission of knowledge to the co-construction of knowledge with students. As a teacher, it is my role to act as a facilitator and a co-participant, to collaboratively construct new understanding of knowledge with students, and to be attentive to the socially constructed perceptions. Peers play an influential role in the process of knowledge construction. I expect my students to socially participate in learning, actively co-construct knowledge with others, and to possess skills including active thinking, interpreting, explaining, and questioning.
Teacher D I think there is a changing world of knowledge, which is constructed out of interaction with others and within the social environment. Students’ learning is an active and social process in which learners construct knowledge based on observation, interaction with the physical and social world, and developing a sense of agency (i.e., becoming more self-regulated learners). My teaching should involve integrating models, providing demonstrations, and supporting self-efficacy and self-regulation. As a teacher, it is my role to act as a model, facilitator, and a motivator. Peers play an influential role in the process of knowledge construction because they can serve in the role of models. I expect my students to socially participate in learning, actively co-construct knowledge with others, and to possess skills including active thinking, interpreting, explaining, and questioning.
Learning in action: With another member from your class, consider one of the following scenarios (or come up with your own) and which of the approaches you might use to guide your thought. (1) Learning the shapes and names of the letters of the alphabet; (2) learning to de-escallate playground tension; (3) learning to write a persuasive essay; (4) considering an appropriate response for the Supreme Court to take in settling conflicting rights claims; (5) considering an appropriate response to current aboriginal land and land use claims.

Glossary edit

integrating the external reality by negotiation with the existing schema, e.g. adding new knowledge that conflicts with previously learned knowledge.
affective domain
one of three domains described by Bloom, the affective domain encompasses feelings, motivations and attitudes associated with learning.
integrating the external reality into the existing cognitive structure, e.g. adding new knowledge that does not conflict with previous knowledge.
a philosophy of psychology that asserts that learning is demonstrated by a change in behaviour. Creating an environment where learning can occur is a primary focus.
classical conditioning
a process of behaviour modification achieved by creating an association between a conditioned stimulus and a unconditioned stimulus to trigger an involuntary response.
cognitive domain
one of the three domains described by Bloom, the cognitive domain describes learning in terms of lower orders (remembering, understanding, and applying) and higher orders of learning (analysing, evaluating, and creating).
cognitive psychology
an approach to educational psychology that focuses on cognition--thinking, memory, problem solving and metacognition.
an approach to learning that asserts that learning occurs as a result of S-R pairings. Connectionism posits that, like other branches of behaviourism, that learning can be observed and explained through external observation.
a theory of knowledge that argues that humans generate knowledge and meaning from an interaction between their ideas and experiences.
discriminative stimulus
in operant conditioning, the stimulous applied before a behaviour to creates the occasion or envionment that encourages the desired voluntary behaviour
electronic learning systems
any system that uses a computer to deliver all or part of a learning package. This includes primitive ELS as well as current learning management systems (LMS)
the idea that learning could occur as a result of sense-experience.
according to Piaget's theory, equilibration is the process that drives development and includes both assimilation and accommodation. In this process children start at a point of equilibrium, experience cognitive conflit due to an awareness of an inadequacy of their existing schema, then ultimately modify their schema to resolve the cognitive conflict thereby reaching a new, stable of equilibrium.
ethical oversight
oversight of research, especially research involving children, that protects the subjects from harm. The Little Albert experiment, conducted by John Watson, is an example of why ethical oversight is necessary.
experimental psychology
the field of psychology that studies learning, memory, etc. using scientific processes.
a whole that is considered to be more than the sum of its parts. As applied to learning, it tries to explain how individuals perceive objects as organized and complete patterns, not as discrete elements.
intelligent tutoring systems
or ITS are computer-based systems that provide real-time instruction and feedback to students without a human teacher.
laws of learning
"laws" created by Thorndike to explain learning from a connectionist perspective. The law of effect is one of Thorndike's laws of learning.
operant conditioning
a process of behaviour modification is achieved by applying positive or negative reinforcement after a specific voluntary behaviour, so that the subject comes to associate the pleasure or displeasure of the reinforcement with the behaviour.
understanding that is achieved through the senses--what we perceive.
an approach that judges something, some process, or some way of thinking by its practical end.
programmed instruction
a method of instruction that presents the learner with small pieces of information, followed by questions that allow the learner to either progress or loop back to the informational text
a field pf psychology pioneered by Freud that asserts that there are complex interactions between the conscious and subconscious mind. It asserts that in order to be authentic, "...teaching and learning must involve the teacher and student in all their psychodynamic complexity as emotional and ethical beings"[47]
the idea that reasoning is the source of knowledge.
reinforcing stimulus
In operant conditioning, the positive or negative reinforcement applied after a voluntary behaviour
scientific method
method of testing a hypothesis through systematic observation of a controlled experiment.
situated learning
learning that takes place in the same context it can be applied in, such as workshops, kitchens, field trips to archaeological digs, etc. This is in contrast to learning that takes place in sterile learning environments such as learning labs.
socratic method
this method of teaching critical thinking relies on the teacher asking questions rather than giving answers until the student finally achieves understanding.
tabula rasta
literally blank slate. In philosophy, the idea that all are born with minds as blank slates which are then imprinted upon by sensory perceptions.
teaching machines
mechanical machines used to help students learn, primarily using drill and practise.
zone of proximal development
is the difference between what a learner can do without help and what he or she can do with help. also ZPD.

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