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A Cognitive Approach to Learning

Much work based on cognitive approaches to learning originates from the work of Jean Piaget and his colleagues (the 'Genevan School'). Their model of learning suggests that the thought processes of the child develop through four distinct stages:

  1. Sensorimotor stage (birth to 2 years): babies start to distinguish between themselves and objects outside their bodies.
  2. Pre-operational stage (2 years to 7 years): objects are classified by single features (e.g. something with four legs can be a 'horse' or a 'dog'). 
  3. Concrete operational stage (7 - 11 years): children can classify objects by several features and can think logically about objects and events - but need practical examples to understand the differences.
  4. Formal operations stage (11 years and upwards): children can think logically about abstract propositions.  They become concerned with the future, together with conceptual and ideological problems.

According to this theory of learing, thought processes depend on the ability to create, hold and modify internal representations of things that are experienced in the environment. These internal representations are called 'schemas' and can be complex. Learning is therefore defined as the acquisition and modification of new schemas in response to new needs.

A crucial aspect of this model is the emhasis on what the learner already knows. It emphasises how active the leaner must be if restructuring (new learning) is to take place. Frequently, individiuals will find that their ability to handle a new experience with existing schemas simply does not work, yet they resist changes to their schemas. For example, the learner may simply choose to ignore information.  Only when genuine cognitive transformation takes place can learning be regarded as having taken place.


  • Cotton, J. (1995) The Theory of Learning: An Introduction, London, Kogan Page.  
  • Desforges, C. (ed) (1995) An Introduction to Teaching: a Psychological Perspective, Oxford: Blackwell. 
  • Gibbs, G. (1994) Improving Student Learning: Theory and Practice, Oxford Centre for Staff Development, Oxford.
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