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See also ADDIE model | ASSURE model | Behaviourism | Constructivism | Famous learning theorists in history | Instructional design models | Teaching library users

"...cognitivism focuses on the “brain” or "the black box"... how humans store and process information in the brain is very important in the process of learning..."

Cognitivism is a theory and psychology of learning that says human beings process information and meaning through the retrieval of past experience stored as mental schema. Cognitive structures help us to think, absorb and retain information and knowledge via previously-experienced events. This process involves access to memories and building mental schema to recognize, recall, apply, understand and reflect on knowledge. Cognitivists do not require outward displays of learning behaviour but only as an indication of the internal cognitive processes taking place. Finally, cognitivists seek to understand how we learn, and how cultural differences affect how we perceive cognitive development across the lifespan. Cognitivism uses the metaphor of the mind as computer: information comes in, is processed, and ultimately leads to a change in our thoughts and perceptions.

Cognitivism is best described as learning established through continuity, structures and repetition. Observing others in the same situation as well as personal reinforcement are contributors to learning retention. Online learning makes it easy for learners to repeat lessons and to associate sound with text or images with concepts, etc.

Cognitivists believe that learners process, store and retrieve information from the brain or the black box. The learner's ability to create associations and knowledge is part of their skill in processing and assimilating information. This is why a structured set of tasks that teach new skills is favoured by most cognitivists. Cognitivism is also known as the science of human cognitive development. Some important names and models in the area of cognitivism are: Collins' cognitive apprenticeship, Merrill's Component Display Theory (CDT), Reigeluth's Elaboration Theory, Gagne's Nine Events of Instruction, Briggs, Bruner (moving toward cognitive constructivism), Schank's Case-Based Reasoning (scripts), Scandura's Structural learning.


Cognitivism can be traced back to the ancient Greeks, Plato and Aristotle. The revolution in cognitivism became evident in American psychology during the 1950s (Saettler, 1990). One of the major players in the development of cognitivism is Jean Piaget, who developed the major aspects of his theory. His ideas did not impact North America until the 1960s after Miller and Bruner founded the Harvard Center for Cognitive studies. As early as the 1920s, limitations were found in behaviourism. Tolman found that rats used in experiments appeared to have a mental map of the maze he used. When he closed off a portion of it, the rats did not bother to try a certain path because they "knew" it led to a block. Visuallythe rats could not see the path would result in failure, yet they chose to take a longer route since they knew it was more successful (Operant Conditioning [On-line]). In addition, behaviourists were unable to explain certain behaviours. For example, children do not imitate all behaviours. They model new behaviours after an initial observation without having been reinforced. Because of this, Bandura and Walters departed from the traditional operant conditioning that the child must perform and receive reinforcement before learning occurs. They stated in their 1963 book, Social Learning and Personality Development, that an individual could model behaviours by observing it in another person. This theory led to Bandura's Social Cognitive Theory (Dembo, 1994).


As early as the 1920s, educators began to see the limitations of behavioural learning models. For instance, Tolman found that rats used in experiments seemed to be able to retrieve "mental maps" of the mazes that they had used before. Because some parts of a maze were closed off, the rats did not use them for they "knew" through previous existing cognitive schema that certain paths would block their paths. Visually, rats could not see the dead-end pathways but still opted for longer routes due to previous memories.

There were other reasons that the science of learning moved beyond behavioural models. Behaviourists were unable to explain why certain social behaviours in children were not always reinforced through a reward system. So how did these children learn these behaviours? In fact, what researchers learned was that children often imitate appropriate behaviours through observation, and in some instances adopt behaviours without any positive reinforcement or rewards. This is what used to be called "learning by osmosis".

Still other researchers extended the principles of behaviourism to include other elements. Bandura and Walters, for example, departed from traditional behavioural conditioning by suggesting children must perform tasks and receive positive reinforcement before they they can be said to have learned something. In their book, Social Learning and Personality Development, some individuals were seen to adopt social behaviours through observational experiences in the home or school. This finding led to Bandura's social learning theory (Dembo, 1994).

Basic tenets of cognitivism

"Cognitive theorists recognize that much learning involves associations established through contiguity and repetition. They also acknowledge the importance of reinforcement, although they stress its role in providing feedback about the correctness of responses over its role as a motivator. However, even while accepting such behavioristic concepts, cognitive theorists view learning as involving the acquisition or reorganization of the cognitive structures through which humans process and store information." ~ Good and Brophy, 1990, pp. 187

The cognitivist revolution replaced behaviourism as the dominant paradigm. Cognitivism focuses on the inner mental activities – seeing into the “black box” of the human brain (mind) provides insights into how people learn. Mental processes such as thinking, memory, knowing, and problem-solving need to be explored. Knowledge can be seen as schema or symbolic mental constructions. Human beings are not “programmed animals” that respond to stimuli; people are rational beings and require active participation to learn, whose actions are a consequence of thought. Changes in behaviour are observed, but only as an indication of what is occurring within the learner. Cognitivism uses the metaphor of the mind as computer: information comes in, is being processed, and leads to certain outcomes.

Cognitivist classrooms

  • create an environment where there are many variables
  • provide tools where learners can develop their understanding of something
  • pose many questions to help learners refine their thinking and recognize where they may be needing attention
  • don't be afraid of failure in a cognitivist classroom; it may be a tool to help learners realize they have more to learn
  • instructors are required to monitor their learners' progress; ask many questions
  • instructors manage problem-solving and provide structured activities, especially with group learning
  • instructors provides opportunities for students to connect new information to cognitive schema

Learning coaches & cognitive apprenticeship

Cognitive apprenticeship.jpg

Learning coaches are teachers, mentors and guides who are knowledgeable about the learning needs of diverse learners; typically, they are skilled at coaching, collaboration and information-sharing. The learning coach works as part of a support team (or close to another teacher) to build learners’ capacity to solve their own problems. In libraries, this might translate into working side by side with a librarian in order to improve their instructional design and teaching skills so that they are effective with learners.

The cognitive apprenticeship model put forward by Collins et al (1989;2006) is an excellent starting point in defining the learning coach. Collins proposes six strategies to develop learners’ cognitive skills:

  1. modeling
  2. coaching
  3. scaffolding
  4. articulation,
  5. reflection
  6. exploration.

Learning coaches can (and should) demonstrate strong collaborative skills and an understanding of changes that occur in learners when given appropriate support (scaffolding) and activities (exploration). Learning coaches typically support learning in a variety of environments, and have the ability to identify, model and share best practices. The coach may draw upon and use diverse models, tools and strategies including the idea of differentiated instruction (providing students with different ways to understand material, to process, construct and make sense of ideas; to develop teaching materials so that all students can learn effectively, regardless of differences in skills, knowledge, abilities or experience).

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