Cognitive Theory

Cognitive theory is a psychological approach to understanding how the brain works. We can use cognitive theory to help us understand how human beings learn languages, whether this is a first language or a second language. 

Cognitive Theory Cognitive Theory

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Table of contents

    Cognitive theory is grounded in the idea that individuals must first understand a concept before they can use language to express it. It argues that, in order to understand new concepts, children (or adults) must develop their cognitive abilities and build their own mental image of the world.

    Cognitive Learning Theory

    What is cognitive theory? The cognitive theory of language acquisition was first proposed by the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget in the 1930s. Piaget believed that language learning is closely linked to the maturation and development of the human brain. He stated that exposure to the world allows a child's mind to develop, in turn, allowing language to develop.

    Characteristics of cognitive learning theory

    The main principle of cognitive theory is the idea that children are born with a limited cognitive ability that must develop over time. As the baby grows into a toddler, then a child, then a teenager, their cognitive ability also increases due to their life experiences. Cognitive theorists believe that with the development of cognitive ability comes the development of language.

    Cognitive ability = the core skills your brain uses to think, read, learn, remember, reason, and pay attention.

    In 1936, Piaget introduced his cognitive development theory and broke the developmental process down into four stages:

    • The Sensorimotor Stage
    • The Preoperational Stage
    • The Concrete Operational Stage
    • The Formal Operational Stage

    As children develop from one stage to the next, they expand their knowledge. It is helpful to think of this process in terms of building blocks. Children develop, or build, a mental image of their world block by block. Piaget referred to these 'blocks of knowledge' as schemas.

    Cognitive theory building blocks of knowledge StudySmarter Fig 1. Piaget refers to the building blocks of knowledge as 'schemas'.

    Piaget's original cognitive development theory has been criticized for being outdated and too culturally bound (valid only within a particular culture).

    Vygotsky, whose theories are grounded in the cognitive approach, built upon Piaget's work to develop his sociocultural cognitive theory. This theory recognized and examined the influence of social and cultural aspects on a child's cognitive development.

    In this article, we will identify three main cognitive theories. They are:

    • Piaget's cognitive development theory
    • Vygotsky's sociocultural cognitive theory
    • Information processing theory

    Let's begin by taking a closer look at Piaget and his contributions to cognitive theory.

    Piaget and the Cognitive Development Theory

    Jean Piaget (1896-1980) was a Swiss psychologist and genetic epistemologist. Piaget believed that the way children think is fundamentally different from how adults think. This theory was pretty ground-breaking at the time as, before Piaget, people often thought of children as 'mini adults'.

    Piaget's theory was very influential in the field of language acquisition and helped directly link language learning with intellectual development. Piaget suggested that language and cognitive skills are directly related and that stronger cognitive skills lead to stronger language skills.

    Piaget's theory of cognitive development remains influential in language teaching today.

    The principal goal of education in the schools should be creating [men and women] who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done.

    (Jean Piaget, The Origins of Intelligence in Children, 1953)

    Schemas

    Piaget believed that knowledge could not simply emerge from an experience; instead, an existing structure is necessary to help make sense of the world. He believed that children are born with a primary mental structure upon which all new knowledge can be built. He suggested that cognitive mental growth is achieved by integrating simpler concepts of knowledge into higher-level concepts at each stage of development. Piaget named these concepts of knowledge schemas.

    It is helpful to think of schemas as building blocks that children use to build their mental representation of the world. Piaget saw children as constantly creating and recreating their model of reality based on these schemas.

    A child can build a schema for cats. At first, they will see a singular cat, hear the word 'cat', and associate the two. However, the term 'cat' will eventually become associated with all cats over time. While the schema for cats is still in the developmental stages, the child may accidentally associate all small four-legged furry friends, such as dogs and rabbits, with the word 'cat'.

    Concerning language acquisition, Piaget suggested that children can only use specific linguistic structures once they have already understood the concepts involved.

    For example, Piaget argued that a child cannot use the past tense until they have understood the concept of the past.

    The four stages of cognitive development

    Piaget's theory of cognitive development revolves around the central idea that intelligence develops as children grow. Piaget believed that cognitive development occurs as a child's mind evolves through a series of set stages until they reach adulthood. Piaget named these 'the four stages of cognitive development'.

    Piaget's four stages of cognitive development are laid out in the table below:

    Stage

    Age range

    Goal

    Sensorimotor stage

    Birth to 18-24 months

    Object permanence

    Preoperational stage

    2 to 7 years

    Symbolic thought

    Concrete operational stage

    7 to 11 years

    Logical thought

    Formal operational stage

    Ages 12 and up

    Scientific reasoning

    Let's take a look at each of these stages in a little more detail:

    At this stage, children will learn predominantly through sensory experiences and manipulating objects. Piaget suggested that children are born with basic 'action schemas', such as suckling and gripping, and they use their action schemas to comprehend new information about the world. In his book The Language and Thought of the Child (1923), he also stated that a child's language functions in two different ways:

    • Egocentric - At this stage, children are able to use language but don't necessarily understand its social function. Language is based on children's own experiences and they struggle to understand the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of others.
    • Socialised - Children begin to use language as a tool to communicate with others.

    During the sensorimotor stage, children's language is very egocentric and they communicate for themselves.

    Children begin to develop symbolic thought and can create an internal representation of the world via language and mental imagery. This means they are able to talk about things beyond the 'here and now', such as the past, the future, and others' feelings.

    Piaget noted that, during this stage, children's language makes rapid progress and the development of their mental schemas allows them to pick up many new words quickly. Children will also begin to form basic sentences, moving away from one-word utterances.

    Instead of saying 'out', a child may begin to say 'mummy go out'. Children cannot yet think logically and still have a very egocentric view of the world.

    Children begin to think more logically about concrete events and solve problems; however, thinking is still very literal. According to Piaget, children's language development at this stage highlights a change in thinking from illogical to logical and egocentric to socialized.

    The final stage of cognitive development involves increased logical thought and the beginning of the ability to understand more abstract and theoretical concepts. Teenagers begin to think more about philosophical, ethical, and political ideas that require a deeper theoretical understanding.

    Piaget stated that no stage can be missed out during cognitive development. However, the rate at which children develop may vary, and some individuals never reach the final stage.

    For example, Dasen (1994) stated that only one in three adults ever reach the final stage. Other psychologists, such as Margaret Donaldson (1978), have argued that the age range of each of Piaget's stages is not so 'clear cut' and progress should be seen as a continuous process rather than divided into stages.

    Vygotsky's sociocultural theory

    Vygotsky's (1896-1934) sociocultural theory views learning as a social process. He stated that children develop their cultural values, beliefs and language based on their interactions with more knowledgeable people (known as the 'more knowledgeable other') such as caregivers. For Vygotsky, the environment in which children grow up will greatly influence how they think, and the adults in their lives play a significant role.

    Whereas Piaget believed that cognitive development happened in universal stages, Vygotsky believed that cognitive development varied across cultures and that language plays an important role in shaping thought.

    Implications of Cognitive Theory in the classroom

    Cognitive learning is a teaching approach that encourages students to be active and engaged in the learning process. Cognitive learning moves away from memorization or repetition and focuses on developing a proper understanding.

    Cognitive theory examples

    Here are some examples of cognitive learning in the classroom.

    • Encouraging students to figure out answers for themselves rather than telling them
    • Asking students to reflect on their answers and explain how they came to their conclusions
    • Helping students find solutions to their problems
    • Encouraging discussions in the classroom
    • Helping students identify patterns in their learning
    • Helping students recognize their own mistakes
    • Using visual aids to reinforce new knowledge
    • Utilizing instructional scaffolding techniques (scaffolding is a teaching technique that supports student-centred learning)

    A teacher may follow the cognitive approach by choosing a topic or subject that their students are familiar with and expanding upon it, adding new information and asking the students to discuss and reflect upon it along the way.

    Alternatively, when introducing a brand new topic, the teacher should encourage students to draw upon relatable background knowledge. This method helps students to assimilate and build upon their schemas.

    After introducing new ideas, the teacher should facilitate reinforcement activities, such as quizzes, memory games, and group reflections.

    Cognitive theory of second language acquisition

    The cognitive theory recognizes second language acquisition (SLA) as a conscious and reasoned thinking process. Unlike first languages, which many theorists argue we have an inbuilt and subconscious ability to speak, learning second languages is more like acquiring any other skill.

    Information process theory

    Information process theory is a cognitive approach to SLA proposed by Barry McLaughlin in 1983. The theory recognizes that learning a new language is an active process that involves building upon schemas and utilizing specific learning strategies to enhance comprehension and retain information. The information process approach is often contrasted with the behaviourist approach, which sees language learning as an unconscious process.

    One thing that many learners struggle with when learning a second language is remembering new vocabulary. Many of us can learn new words, understand them, and successfully use them in a sentence, but we can never seem to remember them the next day!

    McLaughlin (1983) proposes that learning a new language involves moving from a conscious process to an automatic process via practice.

    When first learning a second language, even simple sentences like 'Hello, my name is Bob' require a lot of conscious effort. After much practice, this sentence should come automatically to the learner.

    Students cannot handle too many new structures (or schemas) that require conscious thought; their short-term memory cannot handle it. So, it's essential to wait for them to automatize a structure before giving them new ones.

    The inductive approach to teaching grammar is a good example of the cognitive approach in action. The inductive approach is a learner-led method of teaching grammar that involves learners detecting, or noticing, patterns and figuring out grammar rules for themselves, rather than being given the rule.

    Cognitive theory teacher using the inductive approach StudySmarterFig 2. The inductive approach of teaching involves learners figuring out grammar rules themselves.

    Criticisms of Cognitive Theory

    Consider, what is cognitive theory in relation to the other theories of language acquisition? One of the main criticisms of cognitive theory is that it discusses cognitive processes that aren't directly observable. It becomes increasingly difficult to find clear links between language acquisition and intellectual development as a child gets older.

    Piaget's cognitive theory has been criticized as it fails to recognize other external factors that have been shown to affect development.

    For example, Vygotsky and Bruner, cognitive development theorists, note that Piaget's work failed to account for social and cultural settings and stated that his experiments were too culturally bound.

    Both Bruner and Vygotsky place a lot more emphasis on a child's social environment than Piaget and state that adults should play an active role in developing children's cognitive ability and language acquisition. Additionally, Vygotsky and Bruner reject the idea of cognitive development happening in stages and prefer to view development as one big continuous process.

    Cognitive Theory - Key takeaways

    • The cognitive theory of language acquisition was first proposed by the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget in the 1930s.
    • Cognitive theory is based on the idea that children are born with limited cognitive ability upon which all new knowledge can be built. Knowledge can be developed via 'building blocks of knowledge' named schemas.
    • Piaget broke this developmental process down into four stages: The Sensorimotor Stage, The Preoperational Stage, The Concrete Operational Stage, and The Formal Operational Stage.

    • Jean Piaget, The Origins of Intelligence in Children, 1953.
    • P Dasen. 'Culture and cognitive development from a Piagetian perspective.' Psychology and culture. 1994
    • Margaret Donaldson. Children's Minds. 1978
    • Barry McLaughlin. Second language learning: An information-processing perspective. 1983
    Frequently Asked Questions about Cognitive Theory

    What is cognitive theory?

    The cognitive theory of language acquisition was first proposed by the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget in the 1930s. Cognitive theory is based on the idea that children are born with limited cognitive ability upon which all new knowledge can be built. Piaget suggested that cognitive mental growth is achieved by integrating simpler concepts of knowledge into higher-level concepts at each stage of development. These 'building blocks of knowledge' are named schemas.

    What are the types of cognitive theory?

    The three main types of cognitive theory are: Piaget's development theory, Vygotsky's sociocultural theory, and the information process theory.

    What are the principles of cognitive learning theory?

    Cognitive learning is a teaching approach that encourages students to be active and engaged in the learning process. Cognitive learning moves away from memorization or repetition and focuses on developing a proper understanding.

    What is the main idea of cognitive theory?

    The main principle of cognitive theory is the idea that children are born with a limited cognitive ability that must develop over time. As the child grows up, their cognitive ability also increases due to their life experiences. Cognitive theorists believe that, with the development of cognitive ability, comes the development of language. 

    What are cognitive theory examples?

    Examples of the cognitive learning in the classroom include:

    • Encouraging students to figure out answers for themselves rather than telling them
    • Asking students to reflect on their answers and explain how they came to their conclusions
    • Encouraging discussions in the classroom
    • Helping students identify patterns in their learning
    • Helping students recognize their own mistakes

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Constructivism is considered part of the cognitive revolution, true or false?

    Who is considered the pioneer of constructivism?

    Who created the social constructivist theory?

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