When children are given the option between a reward they would like and the internal desire to learn something, most children would rather have the reward. That is also true of many adults, whether they are in an educational setting or a business setting. Still, that does not mean that intrinsic interest cannot come along with extrinsic reward, or that operant theory is completely wrong. Many educators mix operant theory with cognitive theory in an effort to provide those with different learning styles more of an opportunity to learn and develop. This helps to reach the largest number of students per educator, improving the overall educational goal.
Cognitive Theory of Learning
The cognitive theory of learning has been part of education since the late 1920's, when a Gestalt psychologist focused on the issue of Gestalt teaching and learning, and what that could offer to students who were not learning well in their current environment. There was too much of an emphasis, it was believed, on learning through experience, and not enough emphasis on actual memory and prior knowledge (Bates, 1979; Buisson, et al., 1995; Davidson & Bucher, 1978). The two areas are closely related, however, so some individuals failed to understand how memory and prior knowledge could be so much different from experience. One had to have experiences of some kind in order to gain prior knowledge, and one also needed those experiences in order to have something to remember. That made the issue confusing for many, but those who believed in the cognitive theory of learning were persistent in stating their beliefs and showing others that there was, indeed, a difference between the experiences people had while learning and the prior knowledge and memory that was used to learn (Cameron & Pierce, 1996).
In other words, cognitive theory was not the same as operant conditioning. In operant conditioning, a person is provided with something (an extrinsic reward) because he or she did something. That person (or even an animal) can be taught to react in a specific way to a sound, smell, taste, or even to a word. The classic example of operant conditioning is Pavlov's dog. Pavlov would ring a bell each time he fed his dog, right before the food was offered. Eventually, the dog could be observed salivating at the sound of the bell, even if there was no food offered. He had come to associate the sound of the bell with being fed, and had been conditioned that way. When students are rewarded with something external every time they complete a learning experience, there is a concern that they will end up in that same predicament - they will be taught to expect a certain thing, and they will not understand how to intrinsically reward themselves for a job well done (Bates, 1979; Cameron, Banko, & Pierce, 2001; Ferretti, & Hodges, 1997; Davidson & Bucher, 1978).
Three theorists have made major contributions to the cognitive theory of learning as it exists today. The first to do so was Bode, who was a Gestalt psychologist. He challenged the behaviorists and operant ways of conditioning and teaching students as far back as 1929. In his writings, he argued that behaviorists and others who were not focused on cognitive theory when it came to learning were becoming far too dependent on behavior. They used behavior as a way to explain how people learned things, in a classroom setting and out in the rest of the world. Despite the fact that behavior played on important role in learning, it was not the only way that people could learn and not even the most important way to learn, according to Bode (Cameron, 2001; Cameron, Banko, & Pierce, 2001). What was proposed at that time was for those who studied the ways in which people learn to stop looking at the isolated events and begin to look at the patterns. Since Bode's time, cognitive theories have been introduced that have incorporated Gestalt views on how learning takes place.
In those cognitive theories, there are two key approaches used. These include the belief that memory is active in processing and organization information, as well as the belief that the prior knowledge possessed by an individual has a significant role to play when it comes to how that person learns and what he or she retains (Cameron & Pierce, 1996). The idea is that learning is brain-based, and those who believe in the cognitive theory of learning must understand that looking beyond behavior is highly significant when it comes to an understanding of how people learn and what they can do in order to make learning easier for themselves. The memory that each human has plays a role in how that person learns, how much information he or she retains, and the best way in which that person can be taught in order to achieve the maximum level of retention of information (Carton, 1996; Cavalier, Ferretti, & Hodges, 1997). Because that is the case, theorists have had to rethink what they say about memory and how they feel about the best way for people to learn.
Long-term and short-term memory are both significant when it comes to learning. Each piece of information that is brought into the mind of a person has to be sorted and processed correctly, so it can be determined into which part of the memory that piece of information will be entered. In order to do that, the brain must make a determination as to the value of the information, as well as how that information could best be stored, when it will be needed again, and other processes. It is a very complex thing, and one that even scientists who study the brain have trouble completely understanding. There is much that is not known about the human mind, and learning is part of that gray area where there are many opinions and not as many concrete answers about how everything comes together to allow human beings to do what they do. Because learning is a large part of that complexity, the argument for how it takes place and the best way to undertake it will continue.
The largest differences between behaviorists and those who believe in the cognitive theory of learning is the locus of control (Davidson & Bucher, 1978). Each learning activity is different, as is each learner. With that in mind, the individual learner is much more interesting to Gestalt theorists like Bode than the overall idea of learning, which is more closely focused on by those who consider themselves to be behaviorists. In order to really understand the cognitive theory of learning, though, more work was needed in the way of memory models. These came in the form of the Atkinson-Shiffrin Memory Model and Baddeley's Working Memory Model. Both Atkinson and Shriffrin, as well as Baddeley, were significant contributors to the cognitive theory of learning, because they provided memory models that could be used in order to show the value of human memory and how it relates to the learning experience each individual has (Cavalier, Ferretti, & Hodges, 1997).
The memory models were not originally designed to be used for learning. Instead, they were created for cognitive psychology and established as theoretical frameworks. During the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, new frameworks related to cognitive psychology and learning were established, leading up to theories about information processing and cognitive load. These theories are playing major roles in the way educational instructions are designed, allowing further exploration of the topic (Cameron, 2001; Cameron, Banko, & Pierce, 2001). Among the considered issues are intelligence, memory, learning, and the acquisition of social roles that each individual must play in his or her educational life. These are often also related to age, so studies can be done into whether people learn the same way when they are older as they do when they are younger. With more and more people going back to school in their later years because of a difficult economy, the way that they learn and how they should best to taught for maximum efficiency and effectiveness will likely be studied and challenged (Cameron, Banko, & Pierce, 2001). Few studies are ever left completely alone or automatically assumed to be correct, because there are always other researchers who want to challenge the information with which they are being provided.
Mental Processes Involved in the Cognitive Theory
There are mental processes involved in the associated learning that can be explained through the cognitive theory. With cognitive theory, the concern is not about the outside experience the student has and about the external rewards that student receives. Instead, the theory is about the intrinsic motivation a student has, and how he or she learns through the building of intelligence and understanding. Intelligence has long been something that has been difficult to measure, and researchers have argued that there are many different kinds of intelligence that have to be addressed (Cameron & Pierce, 1996; Carton, 1996).…