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What is Cognitivism?

By Jacob Queen
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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The theory of cognitivism is a model for how the mind learns new things. Many people describe cognitivism as a view that the mind is basically a computer with the ability to process and store things. They believe that the brain takes in information, analyzes it, stores it, and uses it. When people discuss the theory, they often use computer-based metaphors. Cognitivism became popular in the 1950s, and it competes with the rival learning theories known as behaviorism and constructivism.

Someone who agrees with the theory of cognitivism is less concerned with outward behaviors and more concerned with inner processes. The person generally believes that experience is less important in learning than how people process their experiences. According to this idea, one could put five different people through the same experience, and each of them may learn from it in very different ways. Eventually, each would develop totally different behaviors; this is because each person may have a very different way of thinking about things.

Cognitivism was designed as a replacement for a rival theory called behaviorism. This theory was much more focused on external elements. Behaviorists were generally concerned with experiences and how people responded to them. Every external behavior was thought to be directly related to some external cause. These followers often believed that people were basically similar at birth, and most things that made them different were based on varying life experiences.

Learning theories like cognitivism and behaviorism can be seen as more than just theories about learning. They are basically models for the entire way the mind is built. This is because the models see most mental factors in relation to learning. So, as people age, they are learning to live. They may be learning negative things that cause mental problems or learning positive things that lead them to success. For this reason, cognitivism and other learning theories are often directly related to concepts in psychotherapy.

When teachers try to use cognitivism in the classroom, they often focus on putting things into a useful context for students. This is thought to be important because the mind may store the information differently if people learn it in a different context. For example, if someone learns how to add in an abstract way, the mind may see that as a simple mental trick. On the other hand, if a person learns to add in relation to something useful in everyday life, such as a transaction scenario, for example, he might be able to more readily access that knowledge when he needs it.

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Discussion Comments
By SteamLouis — On Sep 17, 2013

How come cognitivism doesn't talk about genetics? Our genes help determine our intelligence and our cognitive abilities.

By burcinc — On Sep 16, 2013

Why do cognitivism and behaviorism have to be rival theories? I think they're both very applicable. Of course experiences shape our personality, but it also has to do with the way we perceive things.

I don't think we can really disprove either of these theories. One might be more useful than the other in certain situations. But I personally think that both the way my brain functions and my unique experiences have made me the person I am today.

By ysmina — On Sep 16, 2013

I absolutely agree that inner processes are more important than the experience itself. I think cognitivism has a realistic view of how this works.

The reason I believe this is because of the differences of opinion among my siblings and I. We all grew up in the same household and had most of the same experiences. But if you ask my siblings about our years growing up, they will all describe it differently.

How is this possible when the experiences were the same? Clearly, how the cognitive mind processes and interprets experiences is more important than the experience itself.

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