Current discourse into human development and learning seeks to motivate teachers, health, and social care workers to develop their own theories of learning and to evaluate such theories within the classroom using an evidence-based approach (Bigge, Morris, & Shermis, 1998). The cognitive approaches challenged the concept of behavioral theory that it was the environment that determined a person’s behavior. Cognitive learning theorists advocated that a person actively participates in the acquisition of new knowledge. Additionally, cognitivism highlighted that not all learning is observable, such as with mental representations within the mind of a person, and the processes of memory and thinking, which could be measured by way of interviews or surveys of people, as well as observations of external behaviors. The cognitive approach pointed to the learning development of children, wherein they do not just respond to their environment but actively engage in making sense of the world and their experiences within it and using their own guesswork as to how the world is structured and functions (Bigge et al., 1998). Many behaviorists ignored initial cognitive theories because they focused on the subjective and mental processes of individuals, which, at the time, could not be observed or measured by way of controlled experiments.
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The early cognitive theorists such as Piaget (1952) and Vygotsky (1962) were the forerunners of constructivist theory. Constructivist learning theory maintains that a person actively engages in the learning process. As such, the individual constructs their understanding of the world and the meanings that they ascribe to their experiences. Further, this construction of reality occurs by way of a person reflecting on their personal experiences within the world. It is assumed that the physical world can never be known directly, rather that each person constructs their own interpretation of it. Hence, there is no absolute reality, and each person’s understanding of the world is relative to their biopsychosocial experiences. It is the social interactions and environmental engagements, that on a daily basis, contribute to how each person constructs their interpretation of reality. Importantly, constructed knowledge need not correspond to external reality in order for the knowledge to be useful because knowledge is useful when it ‘fits the needs’ of the learner (Bigge et al., 1998). Thus, knowledge is subjective, according to the experiences and interpretations of each person.
The social construction model suits teenagers as they are at a developmental stage where they are questioning themselves and the world around them in their search for identity and meaning. They are also able to conceptualize, hypothesize and reason logically and so are ideally suited to the active engagement, discussion, and reflective activities that such a model could provide during the intervention. Bruner’s (1983) cognitive-interactionist approach to learning, the student is expected to actively interact with their learning environment, including their social environment. Bruner’s approach here encourages the teacher and learner to be exploratory, experimental, and investigative as well as reflective in their acquirement of knowledge. The learner takes a reflective approach by first identifying the current problem, forms a hypothesis as to the optimal course of action to solve the problem, and then examines the implications of the chosen solution. Bruner’s approach endorses the student’s efforts to go beyond the provided information and to manipulate current knowledge to fit with new tasks and novel situations. The cognitive-interactionist approach encourages the student to develop a critical thinking style that draws on past experiences and stored knowledge to solve problems that may not have been encountered before or to see old problems in a new and creative way.
Continuous monitoring and evaluation of classroom practices are necessary. Longitudinal studies would be best suited to the measure of cognitive skills across the development stages at school to provide an overall picture of student knowledge acquisition and practice across the years.
Bigge, Morris L. and Shermis, Samuel S. Learning Theories for Teachers, 6th ed. (1998)
Allyn & Bacon. Bruner, J.S. (1983). In Search of Mind. New York: Harper and Row.
Piaget, J.P. (1952). The Origins of Intelligence in Children. International Universities Press, New York.
Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in Society. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.