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Cognitive Learning Theory

Cognitive Learning Theory

This is based on the study of the neural mechanics of how the brain gains knowledge and understanding. So it is deeply embedded in educational psychology and can be used to optimise the learning experience of a student. It can also be used as a tool to explore the nature and cause of any deficits that a student is displaying in a behaviourist sense.

The fundamental element to any cognitive learning theory is the Information Processing Model used. These vary and any model of the brain is an approximation of a more complex reality, but a classic three component model looks like this:

Sensory Memory –feeds into– Short-term Memory –interacts with– Long term Memory

To take learning to drive as an example, in the early days of driving you are receiving a flow of instructions through your sensory memory on what to do. You are also receiving sensory information from your eyes, ears, contact with your seat and your balance system. All these feed into a short-term memory experience, some of which lodges in long-term memory. As you repeatedly go through the learning to drive experience, your long-term memory stores ever greater amounts of information on what works and doesn’t work when driving a car. Your amygdala is also drawn into this because when you do scary things in your car your emotions are raised and the memory is more sharply recorded than when everything is rolling along smoothly.

While you could potentially be taught everything you need to know about learning to drive a car while sat in a classroom, nobody would try to teach it that way, because from a cognitive learning theory perspective, all the sensory experiences of actually driving are a far more efficient way to learn.

You can also see how channelled learning can become, when a countryside dweller drives you into the city. Despite many years of experience behind a wheel, the driver is in an unfamiliar environment, despite all the same rules of the road, and can struggle to deal with it. This is an example of the very practical nature of learning, as predicted by cognitive learning theory.

Created by David Morgan on Saturday, 23 Mar 2013, 06:37.


Education as nuture

Fig. 1. Education as nurture – the graduates of the School of Communications Arts, 1988)

As Vygotsky put it:

‘The gardener affects the germination of his flowers by increasing the temperature, regulating the moisture, varying the relative position of neighboring plants, and selecting and mixing soils and fertilizer, i.e. once again, indirectly, by making appropriate changed in the environment. Thus it is that the teacher educates the student by varying the environment’. Vygotsky 1926 (Kindle location 1129)

And further on he says:

‘The basic rule is that before imparting new knowledge to the child and before fostering a new reaction in him, we must be sure to prepare the ground for it i.e. arouse the appropriate interest. For an analogy, just think how we loosen the soil before planting seeds’. (Kindle location 1755)

The way we learn hasn’t changed in a generation, not in centuries or even millenia – natural selection doesn’t work like that, we are still hunter gatherers on the plains of Eastern Africa. Our imagination, our struggle in adversity, has brought us a long way though. The tools we use to learn have changed more so in the last decade than at any other time in several centuries – eBooks are replacing print and our classroom has virtual walls and may comprise several thousand minds … and can be as intimate as you and a leading academic you stumble upon.

If a place of learning is a garden and a classroom a raised bed, then perhaps the way we should look at connected Web 2.0 learners is more akin to rows of strawberries.

Fig. 2. Self-organisation and interconnection in a bed of strawberry plants


We forget, it’s only natural – what can we do about it?

Fig.1. The Forgetting Curve. Ebbinghaus (1885)

‘The psychological conclusion demands a distribution of repetitions such that some of them should be produced at a later time, separated from the first repetition by a pause’. (Vygotsky, 1926)

More recently, in the last ten years in fact, Dr B Price Kerfoot of Harvard Medical School (2006) created a platform called SpacedEd (now Qstream) that uses multichoice questions, typically and most successfully with first year medical students, where sets of questions are randomised then sent out as text or email to tackle, I suppose, what Ebbinghaus (1885) identified with his ‘Forgetting Curve’. An evidence based paper on the effectiveness of ‘spaced learning’ showed how there was better retention three months, six months and a year down the line.


Ebbinghaus, H (1885) Memory: A contribution to experimental psychology.

Kerfoot, B, P (2006) SPACED EDUCATION. Interactive Spaced-Education to Teach the Physical Examination: A randomized Controlled Trial.

Vygotsky, L (1926) Educational Psychology


Formative Tests Aid Retention

Visualisation of the nurturing nature of education as expressed by Vygotsky

Whilst embracing ‘Activity Theory’ I cannot always use the argument lucidly.

Engestrom presents an idea of how people or communities/groups communicate and learn from each other; when two people start to agree with gushing enthusiasm I’d worry, something else is going on.

(Power play of some kind, or love?)

It is the very act of coming from a different stance that we as people begin to form ideas that are beyond our current understanding, literally at arm’s length like a glowing orb in the palm of our hands.

When such ‘objects’ of understanding collide (if I have understood Activity System’, fresh thinking for both parties occurs.

There is a reason in advertising (still I hope) why a copywriter sits with an art director; this is how ideas form.

Sitting in with ‘creatives’ and becoming one myself I came to appreciate such partnership … though it has taken me 30 years to understand what is going in.

It has taken the last year with The OU and a decade online to value the importance of letting go, to share , to collaborate, rather than being that lone author in a garret, hunched shoulders over my work.

Let your baby go … 

What I have always needed and thrive on are collaborators in the form of agents, producers, editors, publishers, fellow writers and directors, colleagues who help and enable, fellow bloggers too …

If a blogger blogs, what do you do if you are forever engaged in other social media such as Linkedin or Facebook?

‘e-Commentator’ already feels like a naff ‘noughties’ way to express it.

We’ve had our fill of ‘e-tivities’ and ‘e-learning’ haven’t we? It is just learning; they are just activities.

I return to Engestrom often.

My ability to trace my love hate acceptance path through his thinking attests to the value of doing this, my ‘learning journal’.

This is what initially had me befuddled and angry:

Two people are the easy part.

The interplay between SIX people because yet more complex.

At arm’s length, the objects, the ideas, views or knowledge that they have begins to take on its own identity. In advertising an idea, ‘belongs’ to the creative team of the copywriter and art director; it is they who nurture it through the production process NOT the Account Manager or Client. The creators need to see it through otherwise the idea is rapidly diluted. Think of a set of light bulbs in a row, the first bright, each in term a little more dim. This is a poster Winston Fletcher used on how ideas die; I experience it too often.

‘Expansive learning is based on Vygotsky, though three times removed; it implies that we learn within activity pockets as people and groups. The interplay between these groups are the consequential objects of learning that  transmogrify in the presence of other active objects. Solving problems, dealing with contradictions, may come about as these learning systems slide or shift’. Vernon (2011)

I like the way Vygotsky expresses it because it is how I visualised the education I received at the School of Communication Arts. It however lacks the dynamism of Engestrom and rather harks back to an approach to education that whilst admirable is fast being replaced.

As Vygotsky put it:

‘The gardener affects the germination of his flowers by increasing the temperature, regulating the moisture, varying the relative position of neighboring plants, and selecting and mixing soils and fertilizer, i.e. once again, indirectly, by making appropriate changed in the environment. Thus it is that the teacher educates the student by varying the environment’. Vygotsky 1926 (Kindle location 1129)

And further on he says:

‘The basic rule is that before imparting new knowledge to the child and before fostering a new reaction in him, we must be sure to prepare the ground for it i.e. arouse the appropriate interest. For an analogy, just think how we loosen the soil before planting seeds’. (Kindle location 1755, a page reference anyone? What are you supposed to do?)

The challenge when reading papers is how to make the subject matter comprehensible to the non-academic.

Some turn to diagrams, others to metaphors, yet others to cartoons.

I favour the lone speaker free of PowerPoint or even FlipChart.

If they can hold their argument and look into your eyes their conviction can be convincing.

Which has just convinced me of the important of the lecture. Expressed with poignancy by Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture (which has 14 million YouTube hits)

My goal as a communicator is to make complex comprehensible.

Academics have a tendency to tie themselves in knots. If they only talk to fellow academics no wonder. I recognise the value of visualising, of animated explanation, of the power of persuasive through discourse, of metaphors, and analogies, of ideas rising out of the confusion to present themselves.

The problem with all things WWW is that it is just trillions of binary Ones and Zeros in the cloud (which is why I like to use the water-cycle as an analogy).

This from Dion Hinchcliffe.



Whereas I would express it, if visualised at all, like this:


Engeström (2001) article, Expansive learning at work: toward an activity theoretical reconceptualisation

Vygotsky, L (1926) Educational Psychology

H800: 16 Kindle 5

If you’re interested in learning and education online I recommend these two.

The first, E-learning by Design by William Horton a highly practicle, hands on, solutions to e-learning problem x,y, or z. Informed, experienced, good advice with examples galore and links online.

The second, Educational Psychology something by someone you will come across repeatedly. As my background is not in formal teaching, but in TV production and the ‘media’ it is this kind of foundation that I need.

On reflection, I wonder if ahead of the MAODE a module on the Foundations of Learning would have been of value.

The 16 chapters of ‘Rethining the Pedagogy of E-learning’ edited by Rhona Sharpe would suit an MAODE student as several OU and other authors have contributed.


Do please get in touch if you have read or are reading any of the above. It is invaluable to share thougths, especially on Vygotsky.

The creation of Kindle Knowledge

Unable to sleep I do this.

A mini-reflection on building a profile in Linked In.

Then get on with reflecting on my notes on Vygotsky (1997/1926).

The more I read, the greater my fascination. Vygotsky (translated in 1997 from the 1926 original in Russian) I find like H.G.Wells, also of the era, extraordinarily readable and current. A considerable amount of ‘Educational Psychology rings true.

There is then at the confluence of a thought regarding Vygotsky as uploaded this image above; I am only saved from tears by what I was reading about Educational Psychology – understanding does this to you.

This screen image on a Kindle reminds me of my late father, a conservationist, who would have been 80 last week.

The thought produced a physical response.

(James, 1929)

Have we all had an encounter with a thief? If the image of the birds has me thinking about my father (conservationist, ornothologist, rubbish dad … ) then the mention of the word ‘thief’ has me visualising a large screw-diver, the weapon of choice I picked up in the garage as someone tried to break in.

(By now we’re living in a studio flat on Hamilton Terrace, though chronologically we’ve slid back a few years).

The text from Vygotsky has a resonance, and as I keep reading, a convincing argument in relation to education.

Work with these kinds of responses of the individual = success

My concern in relation to e-learning is how easy it is to duplicate what is inappropriate for a class of 30, but the authors (and their sponsors) believe is appropriate for 10,000.

Which in turn brings me to the week 2 activity in H800 of the MAODE

Online through the participation and collaboration of others in your immediate circle, which includes your tutor group, module cohort, wide MAODE colleagues and like-minded OU friends identified here, can your learning experience be personalised.

Ergo, we have a duty to comment, and only through writing ourselves, might we enable (or expose) our selves to comment in turn.

It does strike me that there is a ‘layer’ to the OU blogs-cum-threads that is missing: the MAODE or ‘Education’ blog platform.

As I’ve commented some thousand entries back, writing here is perhaps like doodling on a scroll of toilet paper in a public convenience.

Not the image or sentiment I wanted to conjure up, but a scroll, with perforations top and bottom comes to mind. What you do with this script if you’ve even read it is for your mind to decide.

Kindle doesn’t give you a page number, presumable all e-Reader follow a similar convention. To cite do I give Location 1874?

Without knowing what I am doing or what it will achieve I search ‘James’ in the Kindle PC version, am about to click when a drop down offers me not a reference at the back of the ‘book’ but a link to Google or Wikipedia. I click Wikipedia and seamlessly, find myself here.


(Wikipedia, accessed 17 FEB 2011)

And as we’re talking about physical responses to things then this brought a shiver down my spine and matching the cliched ‘reflexive’ action my draw dropped.

I don’t know what planet I’m living on any more.

No wonder I can’t sleep, Kindle content isn’t a soporific book, rather it’s wired into your cerebellum where in an action not dissimilar to Ken Dodd’s tickling stick, your mind is suitably agitated.

Ken Dodd and his tickling stick đŸ˜¦

(I saw him live as a 10 year old, insanity. About as funny as my Granny sitting on a bowl of peaches).

P.S. Whether for personal, OU or the wider world, this demonstrates a value of blogging … just start to write and let your mind unravel. And if you’ll only get quiet for 90 minutes in the dead of night, that’s what you’ll have to do.


Vygotsky.L.S. (1978) Mind in Society. The development of higher psychological process. Cambridge. MA.

Williams, J (1929) Quoted in Educational Psychology, Vygotsky. Chapter 6.


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