Thursday, September 23, 2010

Cognition and learning

Greeno, J. G., Collins, A. M. & Resnick, L. B (1996). Cognition and learning. In D.C. Berliner & R. C. Calfee (Eds.), Handbook of educational psychology (pp. 15-46). New York: MacMillan.

This chapter by Greeno et al. gives a good overview of behaviorist, cognitive, socio-cultural perspectives on knowing, learning and transfer, and the nature of motivation and engagement.

It compares and contrasts the views and assertions of three main theoretical frameworks (behaviorist, cognitive, socio-cultural) on key thematic issues and questions about cognition and learning.

The chapter also discusses how these three theoretical perspectives play out in

  • the design of learning environments
  • formulating curricula
  • constructing assessments

What is the relationship between these three perspectives? One possibility is that each theory accounts for different types of learning and knowing. Another is that these theories are not mutually exclusive. Sometimes they can support and interact with one another.

It is the view Greeno et al. that the role of theories of cognition and learning is not to prescribe a set of practices that should be followed, but rather to assist in clarifying alternative practices.

In the conclusion, they say, "Reforming practices requires the transformation of people's understanding of principles that are assumed - perhaps implicitly - in the practices, and that theoretically oriented research can assist in identifying these principles and suggest ways of accomplishing the transformations."

This reading led me to reflect about my own experience of learning how to play tennis. Initially, it was a lot of trial and error until I figured out how to hit the ball, serve, hot backhands, lob volley, etc. This seemed like behaviorist learning. When I started taking classes and getting private lessons, my tennis improved dramatically. In addition to playing more, it was helpful to be aware of some of the theories and concepts around things like top spring, transfer of momentum, strategy, etc. This more cognitive approach helped my game tremendously. But it still took a lot of drill and practice, development of "muscle memory." My tennis game also improved as I played with different people and joined a local tennis club. The socio-cultural aspect of tennis also supported my learning, and provided motivation to improve.

To me, the question is not which theory of cognition and learning is "correct" or "most true" but rather when do they apply and how. In addition, these theories may have great explanatory value - i.e., help us understand why educational practice worked (or did not work) with a particular set of learners in a certain context.

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