Cognitive Development, Learning, And Instruction Research Paper

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Scientific conceptualizations of the relations between cognitive development and learning on the one side, and learning and instruction on the other side, have always been controversial in psychology and continue to be so. Theoretical standpoints depend on whether they take a universal or differential perspective, whether they are dominated by evolutionary-genetic or environment-oriented approaches, and whether they are biased ideologically toward an optimistic or pessimistic view on education. For these reasons, this research paper will (a) present the universal relations between cognitive development, learning, and instruction; (b) analyze differential aspects of these three concepts; (c) describe theoretical approaches to the relation be-tween cognitive development and learning; and (d) present theoretical conceptualizations of the relation between learning and instruction. The final section will contain some conclusions for educational practice.

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1. Cognitive Development, Learning, And Instruction From A Universal Perspective

Inspired by evolutionary ideas in general, and the epistemological approach of Jean Piaget (1970) in particular, most classic theories on childhood cognitive development can be characterized by four basic principles. Their theoretical models are:

(a) universal (valid for all human beings),

(b) general (valid for all cognitive phenomena),

(c) structural (valid for all basic changes in the cognitive systems and functions that internally determine the acquisition of knowledge and skills),

(d) naturalistic-descriptive (stating that develop- mental changes are caused by the species-specific nature of human beings and may be influenced by environmental variables but not produced by them).

A typical example is Flavell’s (1970) theoretical assumption ‘that cognitive changes during childhood have a specific set of formal ‘‘morphogenetic’’ properties, that presumably stem from the biological-maturational growth process underlying these changes. Thus, childhood cognitive modifications are largely inevitable, momentous, directional, uniform, and irreversible’ (p. 247).

In such a general conception, learning processes and their external conditions take a subordinate role. Instructions may not only promote natural development but also disrupt or impair it, and although cognitive development is also a condition and outcome of education, it is, nonetheless, a particularly important goal when the interest is in maintaining the dynamics and continuity of the developmental process for as long as possible in order to reach the highest possible level of cognitive development (Kohlberg and Mayer 1972).

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, many scientists are skeptical about such purist theories of cognitive development. This applies not only to the role of learning and of external learning opportunities but also to the impact of instruction and schools on cognitive development. For example, Geary (1995) discriminates between primary and secondary bio-logical abilities. He views primary abilities as innate mental dispositions that enable even infants to learn from experience under almost any sociocultural conditions through the assistance of a strong intrinsic motivation. This is how they acquire domain-specific competencies (e.g., a mother tongue; elementary numerical skills; physical, biological, psychological, and social knowledge).

In comparison, secondary skills vary greatly be-tween cultures, subcultural groups, and cohorts. The learning processes needed to acquire secondary competencies (scientific knowledge, higher mathematical skills, metacognitive skills) are cumulative, proceed at a relatively slow pace, require individual effort, and generally call for extrinsic motivation and didactic support. The level of secondary abilities that may be achieved collectively, and is actually achieved individually, depends on the state of cultural development and the availability of schools or equivalent institutions.

Hence, Geary’s (1995) model assumes that early cognitive development depends on a large number and variety of necessary, autonomous, and automatically effective learning processes, and that although instructions (models, feedback, reinforcement, indications, availability of learning opportunities, etc.) take an important role, they are not decisive, because the acquisition of primary abilities is universal, genetically predetermined, and intrinsically motivated. In contrast, cognitive development in middle childhood, adolescence, and adulthood is influenced far more strongly by a person’s cultural, familial, and individual situation. Instructionally guided and promoted learning is decisive for the course, the contents, and the level of cognitive development. However, there are large interindividual differences—even under similar cultural conditions—in the speed, efficacy, and quality of learning. Such individual differences in cognitive learning and, thus, in cognitive development, cannot be explained completely as consequences of prior learning.

2. Cognitive Development, Learning, And Instruction From A Differential Perspective

Each attained state of cognitive development deter-mines learning, and the outcomes of cumulative learning processes influence the course of cognitive development. This general rule is moderated by the strength and stability of individual differences in intellectual abilities.

Ever since Binet and Simon constructed the first intelligence test in 1905, psychometrically oriented research has assumed that interindividual differences in abilities are relatively stable from middle childhood onward, and that these differences in the speed and quality of cognitive development permit long-term predictions. In a theoretically sophisticated but skeptical review of the available empirical findings, Wohlwill (1980) concluded, ‘A reasonable coherent picture of the stability of IQ, over different portions of the age span, and some of the variables affecting it, has emerged from … research’ (p. 401). How can we explain this high stability in individual IQ differences? The most plausible answer is to assume the existence of cognitive and social mechanisms with the same effect as the Matthew Principle of ‘For unto everyone that hath shall be given.’

Despite numerous theoretical and methodological controversies, the available research on twins leads to the conclusion that one half or slightly more of the variance in IQ in the industrialized nations is determined genetically (which naturally also means that almost one half of this variance is not determined genetically). In contrast to much prejudiced belief, genetic factors and environmental conditions do not impact independently on the individual’s cognitive development, but covary to a major degree. As a rule, biological parents are also the most important actors in the young child’s social environment. Persons already react differentially in accordance with the infant’s genotype, and children become actively involved in selecting preferential segments of the environment at an early age. These covariations help to strengthen and stabilize interindividual differences. Moreover, more intelligent children profit to a larger extent from the same learning opportunities and instructional aids than their less intelligent peers. Those who are more successful as a result of a cumulation of favorable factors develop a higher degree of self-confidence that encourages them to make a greater effort to solve difficult problems. Finally, young persons with greater abilities and higher achievements generally get a better education, which leads to greater career opportunities that are also associated in the long term with more cognitive stimulation and challenge.

Scientists and educators differ greatly in their response to the empirical evidence of stable differences in cognitive development. In the 1960s and 1970s, people thought that an egalitarian leveling out of individual differences in cognitive abilities and achievements was possible and could be achieved through intervention. The concept of mastery learning was viewed as the key for this. The idea was to grant less gifted and unsuccessful students a temporary increase in necessary learning time, while simultaneously adapting instruction to match their learning aptitudes as closely as possible. The educational and, to some extent, ideological aspirations invested in this model of learning have never paid off. Students with low abilities and poor prior knowledge differ greatly in what they can learn during a similar amount of learning time. As a result, large differences in the amount of learning time are required if equal achievements are to be attained in a heterogeneous population (Slavin 1987).

The opposing standpoint is well-characterized by Herrnstein and Murray’s (1994) book The Bell Cur e. According to their research in the USA, the interplay of differences in genetic endowment and sociocultural conditions lead, at a very early stage, to stable interindividual differences in intellectual abilities, motivational tendencies, and patterns of social behavior. The attempts to increase equality through compensatory education in recent decades have led to no long-lasting reduction in intellectual differences. As a result, the authors, strongly recommend discontinuing interventions for disadvantaged children and investing the available financial resources in educating those students whose high mental potential means that they will be responsible for generating the largest part of the gross national product in the years to come.

Both radical positions give a very one-sided interpretation of the current state of research. They overlook the fact that all children have to learn all competencies, and that all students profit from good instruction, while, at the same time, major differences in cognitive abilities and performance cannot be leveled out through intensive developmental interventions and academic instruction.

3. Cognitive Development And Learning: Which Comes First?

Psychology has a long tradition of assuming that learning is the only mechanism for explaining cognitive development. With the expert approach, this assumption has even survived the shift from behaviorist theories to cognitive models. Indeed, the expert approach has even be applied to cognitive development (Carey 1984, Sternberg 1998). For example, Carey (1984) has postulated: ‘Children differ from adults only in accumulation of knowledge’ (p. 37). As a result: ‘Children know less than adults. Children are novices in almost every domain in which adults are experts’ (p. 64).

Gagne (1968) had adopted a similar position in this criticism of the structuralist stage theories of cognitive development (e.g., Piaget 1970):

In an oversimplified way, it may be said that the stage of intellectual development depends upon what the learner knows already and how much he has yet to learn order to achieve some particular goals. Stages of development are not related to age, except in the sense that learning takes time. They are not related to logical structures, except in the sense that the combining of prior capabilities into new ones caries its own inherent logic Gagne 1968 (p. 189).

Does learning really determine all of cognitive development during childhood? There is still not enough empirical evidence to answer this question. Nonetheless, the confirmation of domain-specific knowledge in infancy, of the acquisition of demanding (linguistic or numerical) competencies during early childhood without any recognizable signs of a prior acquisition of the necessary cognitive preconditions, and the interindividual similarly in cognitive development despite different learning opportunities, supports the idea that innate predispositions must also be involved in not only specific but also unspecific cognitive learning processes.

As children grow older, the externally controlled acquisition (through learning) of competencies seems to become more important for cognitive development than internally guided learning processes. For ex-ample, the information-processing approach has revealed large intraindividual differences in solving structurally similar tasks that nonetheless differ in content. The influence of learned declarative as well as procedural knowledge on the development of cognitive competencies has been confirmed convincingly. Studies on how novices develop into experts in specific contexts have also shown what outstanding levels of performance can be achieved through long-term, deliberate practice (Siegler 1991).

Even though relations between innate and acquired competencies, between ontological and logical restrictions to learning, between domain-specific and domain-unspecific learning opportunities, between explicit and implicit learning modes, between neurobiological and behavioral indicators of learning, are currently a field of intensive research, new methodological paradigms, and numerous theoretical speculations, they have still not been subjected to solid and consistent theory formulation (Richardson 1998).

4. Learning And Instruction: Are Learners Really Their Own Best Instructors?

The role and function of instruction for learning, particularly for academic learning, were already controversial topics in the philosophical tradition of educational science, and this has not changed during the more than 100-year-old history of educational psychology and the scientific study of teaching methods. Some examples of what are, in part, very different conceptions of teaching methods are non-directive instruction as an aid toward self-generated insight in the student (the Socratic method); the adaptation of learning goals, learning conditions, and learning methods to the mental state of the individual learner; the application of psychological laws to initiate learning and make it successful (experimental teaching methods at the beginning of the twentieth century); open but stimulating learning environments to arouse students mentally (the educational reform movement of the twentieth century); the planning, organization, structuring, and evaluation of learning in the classroom through the teacher (direct instruction); or the moderation of the activities of independent and responsible student learners (self-regulated learning approach).

The theoretical (and sometimes ideological) controversies over the role and function of instruction for learning are particularly relevant at the start of the twenty-first century. In a comparison of psychological research on learning and educational research on teaching. Shulman (1982) even believed that he could recognize a potential paradox: ‘Although the research on learning has taught us the importance of the active, transforming role of the learner, the research on teaching continues to demonstrate the importance of direct instruction, an approach which seems to suggest a passive view of the learner’ (p. 97).

The apparantly paradoxical pattern of results from experimental and developmental research on the one hand, and research on classroom instruction on the other hand, is not at all contradictory when one goes beyond the negative stereotype associated with direct instruction and considers the features and operationalizations used in many models of direct instruction. Direct instruction can be characterized by the following points: (a) The teachers classroom management is effective and the rate of student’s interruptive behavior is very low; (b) the teacher maintains a strong academic focus and uses instructional time intensively to initiate and facilitate active, constructive, and goal-directed learning activities; (c) the teacher ensures that as many students as possible achieve successful learning processes by carefully chosing appropriate tasks, clearly presenting subject-matter information, continuously diagnosing each student’s learning progress and learning difficulties, and providing effective help through remedial instruction.

Many studies have shown that instruction in which the teacher actively supports the learning process of the active and constructive working students is more effective than an educational strategy in which the teacher’s only role is to provide for external conditions that made individual learning possible (Weinert and Helmke 1995).

Nonetheless, self-regulated learning has become a broad field of psychological research in recent years as well as a powerful movement for educational reform (Boekaerts 1999). This reveals a broad consensus that self-directed learning is one of the most important goals of education. The only controversy is over whether this goal can be attained exclusively through self-directed learning activities by students, regardless of whether or not these learners possess appropriate learning strategies or how far the contents of learning are close to the individual learner’s experience.

5. Conclusions

Although it has been possible to solve or clarify many scientific problems regarding the relation between cognitive development, learning, and instruction during the last century, psychology and educational science are still far from possessing satisfactory theoretical models. Nonetheless, the current state of knowledge reveals a few interesting perspectives and conclusions for future psychological research and current educational practice:

(a) At the present time, neurobiological and psycho-logical research are still unable to work in concert, particularly with babies and young children. There is a need for improvement in the forms of interdisciplinary cooperation and a speeding up of knowledge transfer.

(b) A very important question seems to be what do we have to teach in order to ensure that certain competencies will be in any way acquired and lead to the emergence of the desired special patterns of cognitive development.

(c) As well as examining universal changes in development, there is a need for studies on interindividual differences in cognitive structures and processes to improve the understanding of learning effects and the effectiveness of instruction. Which deficient competencies can be compensated or substituted through learning and through instruction, and which trade-offs can be anticipated?

(d) As well as studying representative samples of children at different stages of development, basic research needs to pay more attention to the developmental course of both gifted and mentally retarded children. Which qualitative differences in ability and development can be found? What consequences do they have for the possibility, speed, and quality of learning? How can instruction be adapted in line with individual differences in intelligence, talent, and learning?

(e) It has proved to be unacceptable theoretically and also dysfunctional in terms of research strategy to study cognitive development in middle age and old age in an (inverted) analogy to childhood development. Developmental processes in the early and late sections of the lifespan differ in fundamental terms.

(f) No universal, unequivocal, and concrete recommendations for educational practice can be derived from the available general theories on development, learning, and instruction.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, it therefore seems wise for school administrators and teachers not to follow radically one-sided scientific recommendations, but to apply variable combinations of instruction methods to meet different educational goals and comply with the different learning preconditions in their students.


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