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Cognitivism and games

busy brain

In this, the second part of my series on examining how learning theories relate to game play, I’m looking at the theory that suggests learning is dependent on mental capacity – cognitivism.

Cognitivism replaced Behaviourism as the dominant learning paradigm in the 1960s[1]. Cognitive psychology proposes that learning comes from mental activity such as memory, motivation, thinking and reflection.  Cognitivists believe that learning is an internal process that depends on the learner’s capacity, motivation and determination[2],[3].

Although cognitivists such as Jean Piaget[4] and Jerome Bruner[5] have different emphases, both believe that learning is demonstrated through a change in knowledge and understanding.  Cognitivists describe this change as altering a learner’s mental model.  Cognitivists maintain that the mind, thinking and understanding mediate the stimulus and response described by behaviourists.  That is, while learning may result in a change of behaviour, it is primarily a change in understanding.

Cognitivism focuses on the transmission of information from someone who knows (such as an ‘expert’ as opposed to facilitators) to learners who do not know.  The learners receive it, take it on board, store it, relate it to existing ideas and information that they already have, index it (like a filing system) and then retrieve it, so that they can find it in their memories later when they need it.  In cognitivism, learning is the process of connecting pieces of knowledge in meaningful and memorable ways.

However, working with older learners can be more difficult because in the cognitivist view, learning is more about modifying and extending ideas than adding new ones.  Although more mature learners may have ‘collected’ more ideas they may be ‘fixed’ or harder to change.

Cognitivism relies heavily on Piaget’s notion of age-dependent “stages of development” to define the mental capabilities of learners. For teachers in a cognitivist environment getting the balance between the transmission and facilitation is critical for effective learning.  Practitioners have to decide when to offer input (transmitted knowledge) to learners and when to facilitate a learner’s understanding of their own personal model.

In cognitivist thinking, purpose and outcomes are like a general sense of direction for a journey rather than a detailed specification of the shared, identical destination.

Cognitivism is more concerned with process than the product and is therefore demonstrated by games than improve reflexes, promote critical thinking or help people learn different patterns of association.  In 2009, Alain Lieury, professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Rennes comprehensively demolished claims that brain training games were any better than even the humble paper and pen for increasing brain ‘power’ but puzzles and strategy games that offer a free environment for decision-making such as Tetris, Age of Empires and Professor Layton  are good examples of the cognitivist approach.

Bandura’s later theory of Social Learning[6] attempts to bridge the gap between behaviourist and cognitive learning theories because it encompasses attention, memory, and motivation.


[1] Ormrod, J.E. , (1999), Human learning (3rd ed), Prentice-Hall, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey

[2] Craik, F. I. M. & Lockhart, R. S., (1972), Levels of processing: A framework for memory research., Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 11, 671-684

[3] Craik, F. I. M. & Tulving, E, (1975), Depth of processing and the retention of words in episodic memory., Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 104, 268-294

[4] Piaget, J., (1962), Play, dreams and imitation in childhood, W. W. Norton & Company, New York

[5] Bruner, J. S., (1966), Toward a theory of instruction, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press

[6] Bandura, A. , (1977), Social Learning Theory, General Learning Press, New York

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