Kerry has been a teacher and an administrator for more than twenty years. She has a Master of Education degree.
What is Cognition?
Cognitive processes combine the acquisition of knowledge and skills with the ability to apply information to new situations. For example, when a student learns about addition and subtraction, he is able to transfer that knowledge when he uses it to create a budget to help him save money for a new video game. Transfer is a term that refers to drawing conclusions and solving problems using information that was learned in a different context. Thanks to theorists like Jean Piaget, we understand how the brain functions when new information is learned, and we can apply that knowledge to the classroom. Let's learn more about cognitivism.
What Happens When We Learn?
Let's start by talking about what happens when we learn. Within our brains, we have schema, which is like a large hard drive that the learner fills with folders containing everything we know. When we learn something new, we must either organize it in one of the existing folders or create a new folder. Assimilation is the process of integrating new knowledge with existing schema. However, there are times when the learner's schema does not align with new the information, which is called cognitive dissonance. This is uncomfortable and must be resolved. In this instance, the learner is forced to make accommodations to their schema in order to process new learning. Accommodation is the process of modifying existing schema to integrate new knowledge.
Strategies to Support Cognition
You may be wondering how this is going to help you in the classroom. Well, the key to building schema is making connections. We'll now take a look at some strategies for developing schema to help students process information.
- One of these strategies is activating prior knowledge before beginning a lesson to help prepare students to connect new information. Prior knowledge can be activated using a KWL chart or an anticipation guide. KWL charts document what students know, want to know, and have learned in a learning segment. Anticipation guides ask students questions about what they are getting ready to learn, giving them the opportunity to guess the correct answer, which engages them and helps them prepare for a new learning experience.
- Another strategy is using mind maps, a way of graphically organizing thoughts. Mind maps begin with a general idea from which related information branches out, becoming increasingly more specific.
- Another strategy called classification uses the same concept in reverse -- students begin with something specific and increasingly put it into broader categories. For example, a teacher may show students a grasshopper and then allow students to figure out what else it is. A grasshopper may also be classified as an insect, a plant-eater, consumer, pest, prey, orthopteran, etc. The same process is used when a student sorts objects, words, and concepts. Sorting is putting specific things into a broader category.
- Finally, you can use compare and contrast activities. These allow students to make connections by identifying similarities and differences.
Jean Piaget's Cognitive Theory
What do the theorists say? Although many theorists contributed to helping us understand how the brain functions, the psychologist who contributed the most to studying cognition in children is Jean Piaget. Piaget's Cognitive Theory is comprised of three basic components:
- All knowledge is built from schema.
- Children pass through cognitive stages by balancing their cognitive dissonance through assimilation and accommodation.
- Children pass through predictable stages of development that explain their ability to process information.
According to Piaget, the stages of development are sensorimotor, in which most of what children learn is through reflexive responses; pre-operational, in which children learn about language and representative objects; concrete operational, in which children are able to begin seeing things from other viewpoints and think logically; and formal operational, in which children are able to view things from various perspectives and solve abstract problems. Educators are able to use Piaget's theories to better understand the way children think and to develop learning activities that support the development of schema according to the developmental capabilities of their students.
Cognition happens when students acquire new knowledge or skills and find ways to transfer, or apply, that information to a new context. Our brains have schema, which is like a large hard drive with folders containing everything we know. When new information is learned, it is either assimilated, meaning integrated into existing schema, or it is accommodated, where the schema must be adjusted to integrate new ideas. Until students find a way to either assimilate or accommodate the new information, they will experience an uncomfortable cognitive dissonance that must be resolved.
Teachers can help students through the cognitive process by using instructional strategies that support making connections. Activating prior knowledge through the use of a KWL chart or anticipation guides, using mind maps, classifying, and comparing and contrasting various concepts help students build schema. Jean Piaget's cognitive theory explains much of what we know about how children learn through various developmental stages including sensorimotor, pre-operational, concrete operational, and formal operational.
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