The Developing Learner

Cognitive Development

Cognition refers to thinking and memory processes, and cognitive development refers to long-term changes in these processes. Biological changes in brain structure and connectivity in the brain interact with increased experience, knowledge, and changing social demands to produce rapid cognitive growth. Development of executive functions, or cognitive skills that enable the control and coordination of thoughts and behavior, are generally associated with the prefrontal cortex area of the brain. The thoughts, ideas, and concepts developed during this period of life greatly influence one’s future life and play a significant role in character and personality formation.

There are two primary perspectives on cognitive development: constructivist and information-processing. The constructivist perspective is based on the work of psychologists like Piaget and Vygotsky. The information-processing perspective explains cognitive development in terms of the growth of specific components of the overall process of thinking, such as attention, memory, processing speed, and metacognition.

Constructivist Theories

Constructivism is a perspective on learning focused on how people actively create (or “construct”) knowledge out of experiences. Constructivist models of learning differ in how much a learner constructs knowledge independently, compared to how much he or she takes cues from people who may be more of an expert and who help the learner’s efforts (Fosnot, 2005; Rockmore, 2005). These two perspectives are referred to as psychological constructivism (changes in thinking resulting from individual experiences) and social constructivism (changes in thinking due to assistance from others); however, both versions are, in a sense, explanations about thinking within individuals.

The Piagetian version of psychological constructivist learning is rather “individualistic,” in the sense that it does not say much about how other people involved might assist with learning. Parents and teachers are left lingering on the sidelines with few significant responsibilities for helping learners to construct knowledge. Piaget did recognize the importance of helping others in his theory, calling the process of support or assistance social transmission; however, he did not emphasize this aspect of constructivism. Piaget was more interested in what learners could figure out on their own (Salkind, 2004). Partly for this reason, his theory is often considered less about learning and more about development, which is a long-term change in a person resulting from multiple experiences. For the same reason, educators have often found Piaget’s ideas especially helpful for thinking about students’ readiness to learn.

Unlike Piaget’s rather individually oriented version of constructivism, some psychologists have focused on the interactions between a learner and more knowledgeable individuals. One early expression of this viewpoint came from the American psychologist Jerome Bruner (1960, 1966, 1996), who became convinced that students could usually learn more than had been traditionally expected as long as they were given appropriate guidance and resources. He called such support instructional scaffolding— literally meaning a temporary framework, like one used in constructing a building, that allows a much stronger structure to be built within it. The reason for such a bold assertion was Bruner’s belief in scaffolding—his belief in the importance of providing guidance in the right way and at the right time. When scaffolding is provided, students seem more competent and “intelligent,” and they learn more.

Similar ideas were proposed by Lev Vygotsky (1978), whose writing focused on how a learner’s thinking is influenced by relationships with others who are more capable, knowledgeable, or expert than the learner. Vygotsky proposed that when a person is learning a new skill or solving a new problem, he or she can perform better if accompanied and helped by an expert than if performing alone—though still not as well as the expert.

The social version of constructivism, however, highlights the responsibility of the expert for making learning possible. He or she must not only have knowledge and skill but also know how to arrange experiences that make it easy and safe for learners to gain knowledge and skill themselves.  In addition to knowing what is to be learned, the expert (i.e., the teacher) needs to break the content into manageable parts, offer the parts in a sensible sequence, provide for a suitable and successful practice, bring the parts back together again at the end, and somehow relate the entire experience to knowledge and skills already meaningful to the learner.

Video 3.5.1 Constructivist Learning explains the basics of constructivism.

Information Processing Theories

Information Processing is not the work of a single theorist, but is based on the ideas and research of several cognitive scientists studying how individuals perceive, analyze, manipulate, use, and remember information. This approach assumes that humans gradually improve in their processing skills; that is, development is continuous rather than stage-like. The more complex mental skills of adults are built from the primitive abilities of children. We are born with the ability to notice stimuli, store, and retrieve information. Brain maturation enables advancements in our information processing system. At the same time, interactions with the environment also aid in our development of more effective strategies for processing information.


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Educational Psychology Copyright © 2020 by Nicole Arduini-Van Hoose is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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