Cognitive theory of education is one of the most widely supported and deeply thought-through educational theories used in developed countries of our day. The prospects of its usage haven’t yet been fully researched, but the majority of specialists agree that its further implementation can yield great and fascinating results – both in education of children and adults.
The basic principle of cognitive theory is that the effectiveness of education depends more on the intrinsic processes that occur in human mind and not on the external stimuli. Thus, if we understand the activity of human mind we can better understand how education happens and modify it in ways that can make improve the final result – by encouraging effective cognitive processes and discouraging ineffective ones it is possible to make more difference than by simple changes in educational curriculum.
Cognitive educational theory is antagonistic towards the behaviorism, stating that the role of behavior in education is greatly overrated, and the importance lies not with outward behavior and individual events, but with their patterns, memory and intrinsic cognitive processes. Memory is perceived as an active, functioning process, which means that all prior experience of this particular human being plays an enormous role in his or her education.
It doesn’t mean that cognitive theory fails to accept the importance of behavior in educational process; it simply considers it to be a secondary factor, not a primary one. Instead of concentrating on establishing effective behaviors cognitive theory studies how human memory works, strives to understand the mechanisms of long-term and short-term memory in order to establish optimal ways people can perceive, process and retain new information.
As a result, the use of cognitive approach in adult education has its strong and weak points. On the one hand, by the time a person reaches adulthood, his or her cognitive functions are already completely established, he or she achieves certain prowess in information processing and can be expected to properly perceive and store more complex data. On the other hand, the older human brain gets, the worse it is at perceiving new facts – it is one of the reasons why it is crucial to start education at as early age as possible. For example, if a person doesn’t start learning how to talk at a very early age, he may either never start talking at all, or his capabilities will be severely limited. If a child starts learning a foreign language at an early age he or she may well become its native speaker; teenagers can easily learn basic competencies; and after the age of about 30 learning a new language becomes increasingly difficult – exactly for the reason that cognition patterns are already established.
According to the cognitive theory of education the personality of learner is more important than his or her environment. This means that in order to optimize the education process cognitivists are more likely to influence the learner directly than try to modify the environment the education takes place in. It is especially important because this approach pays greater attention to the personal features of every individual, thus tailoring educational process to his or her capabilities, inclinations and personality. Although it is generally more difficult than trying to fit a person into the environment, it also is much more effective when done properly.
All in all, cognitive educational theory plays a special role in adult education because an adult knows better in which direction he or she is willing to develop, which allows for greater customization, while in children’s education it’s reasonable to utilize a more general approach – after all, nobody knows beforehand in which areas the child is going to be most capable.