The cognitive theory formulated by Jean Piaget, argues that the cognitive development takes place with the reorganization of the structures, as a consequence of the adaptive processes to the environment, as from the assimilation and adaptation of the experience, according to the previous knowledge.
If the physical and social experience comes into conflict with the previous knowledge, the cognitive structures adapt in order to incorporate the new experience, and this is what is considered as learning. The learning content is organized in knowledge schemas of different levels of complexity.
In Piaget’s theory we find two functions, called assimilation and accommodation, which are essential for the adaptation of the organism to the environment. This adaptation is understood as a cognitive effort of the individual in order to find a balance between him and the environment.
Through assimilation, the organism incorporates information into the cognitive structures in order to adjust better the previous knowledge that it has, while through accommodation the organism gets adjusted to the demanding circumstances. It is an intelligent behavior that helps incorporating the experience of the actions to achieve a better development.
These mechanisms of assimilation and accommodation form units of cognitive structures that Piaget calls schemas. These schemas are internalized representations of certain types of actions or realizations, as if something happens in the mind but without carrying out the action. One can say that the schema constitutes a cognitive plan that establishes the sequence of steps that lead to the solution of the problem.
On the other hand, Vygotsky sociocultural theory considers the social environment as crucial for learning, meaning, that the integration of the personal and social factors allows developing the learning.
A very important concept in Vygotsky’s theory is the zone of proximal development, which refers to the distance that exists between the real level of development and the feasible level of development. This process requires the guidance of the teacher or the collaboration from more skilled classmates. It is important to mention that the cognitive change takes place on the zone of proximal development when the teacher and the student share factors of their environment (cultural object, language and social institutions).
COGNITIVE THEORY OF LEARNING
To define learning and to study how it is produced has been arduously discussed by various theorists and researchers. Tarpy defines learning as a “change provoked on the mental state of the organism, which comes from the experience and influences in a relatively permanent way on the organism’s potential for the subsequent adaptive behavior”. This learning or mental change should allow the individual to become part of the culture, handle information critically, use technology without idolizing it, deal with uncertainty and build, metaphorically, the knowledge.
When we refer specifically, to the learning of science, it implies learning to speak the typical language of it, being able to communicate through it and be an active member of the community of people that uses it. In order for this learning to be effective, there are necessary conceptual, linguistic, logical and experimental requisites, as well as cognitive and studying skills.
The cognitive theory focuses on the mental processes of the apprentice, and explores the mechanisms through which the information is received, organized, stored, retained and used in the brain. The cognitive theorist hold that the way in which knowledge is structured and organized internally within the student has a considerable impact on how a new learning occurs. The new learning is based on using the previous knowledge in order to understand the new situation. According to the cognitive theory, the information to be processed should be organized in such a way that allows the apprentice to connect the new information with the previous knowledge in a meaningful way.
The information processing theory (more on philosophyterms.com) can be considered as the central axis of the cognitive approach, which has been built with the contribution from numerous researches. This theory starts from the premise that learning is a response to the stimulus from the environment, but states that in between this stimulus and the response, intervenes the system of information processing of the apprentice.
It postulates a memory system that explains the stages of the information processing. Three types of memory form this system:
- Sensory Memory (SM), which is associated to the senses and stores information for a short period of time.
- Short-term memory (STM), also known as working memory, which is where the information is processed, being able to store a limited amount of information for a limited amount of time.
- Long-term memory (LTM), which represents the unlimited storage memory. When the information is stored in the LTM one can say that the information has been learned.
From the cognitive perspective of learning, students are expected to become independent, autonomous and self-regulated apprentices, able to learn how to learn. Diaz & Hernandez, define learning how to learn in the following way: “It implies the ability to reflect on the way one learns, and act accordingly, self-regulating the own learning process through the use of appropriate and flexible strategies that can be transferred and adapted to new situations”.
Starting from this concept, to develop the ability to learn how to learn the students need to use the appropriate strategies that allow them to deal with the cognitive project. The cognitive strategies are the mental operations and procedures that a person uses in order to learn something. They constitute the abilities that allow the internal control of the functioning of the mental activities and other processes involved in learning, remembering and thinking. Cognitive strategies are classified in three groups:
- Rehearsal strategies. These strategies allow practicing the material received through our environment, with the purpose of transferring it to the working memory. Within these strategies we can find: repeating, rehearsing, practicing and enumerating. According to Pozo, these strategies are useful specially when the materials to be used have little, or zero logical or psychological significance for the apprentice. They are basic strategies to achieve repetitive or rote learning.
- Elaboration strategies. To elaborate means to carry out activities that allow the apprentice to generate some symbolic representations with the information that is trying to learn, with the purpose of making it meaningful. According to this, elaboration strategies are directed to integrate and relate the new information to be learned with the appropriate previous knowledge. Meaning, transferring the knowledge accumulated on the long-term memory to the working memory, and assimilating the coming information with the already existent one. There can be two types of elaboration strategies: verbal or imaginary. Within the verbal elaboration strategies we find: paraphrasing, identifying key concepts, inferring, summarizing, etc. While the imaginary elaboration strategies are directed to the formation of mental images.
- Organizational strategies. These strategies allow reorganizing constructively the information to be learned. Through the use of such strategies is possible to organize, group, or classify the information, with the purpose of achieving a right representation of the information. They allow establishing relations between the new information and the schematic organization forms internalized by the apprentice. Some examples of these strategies are semantic networks or concept maps. Semantic networks or concept maps are powerful tools to design and represent graphically ideas and their relations. They are formed by concepts, linked together through connectors. The process of creating semantic networks involves the students in the analysis of their own knowledge structure. During the process of acquiring the information, the students identify ideas or concepts important in the material, and represent their structure and relations as a network; for this the students use circles that include the idea or concept, and the lines that represent the relations.