Jean Piaget is perhaps the most famous cognitivist in the field of education. Piaget developed a four-stage theory of intellectual development that is based on the physical maturation of the individual. Piaget would argue that human beings cannot learn certain concepts until they have the physical brain capacity to do so. David Ausubel emphasizes the difference between meaningful (connected to some other concept in a person’s cognitive structure) and rote learning. Ausubel would argue that new learning must somehow relate to the learner in order to be made significant. Bruner, in contrast, would argue that a person can only learn by discovering new knowledge for him or herself, that the learner must reassemble the knowledge.
Cognitive theory provides a better basis for understanding the human factor in education. The student takes a more active role in acquiring knowledge, and demonstrates mental processes by transforming presented material into new knowledge. One feels more “in charge” in the learning process, and less like a subject in an experiment. Reed, Bergman and Olson maintain that learners are able to use their mental tools in order to actively engage themselves in the behaviorists learning process.
A chief limitation of cognitive theories in education is making new knowledge related to the individual. A larger limitation is the knowledge that of Piaget’s third and four stages of development (concrete operational and formal operational), significant percentages of adults never mentally graduate into the formal operational stage. The instructor is faced with the challenge of attempting to introduce knowledge skills that the adult students cannot grasp. Another difficulty is assessing which of the eight types of knowledge developed by Gagne, Briggs, and Wager and the appropriate instructional technique would be the most appropriate for specific classroom instruction.
The cognitive orientation serves an appropriate purpose in adult education because it does take the individual learner into account. Knowing that the learning processes are based on age allows instruction to be tailored to specific age groups. In teaching adults, one can be reasonably certain that the material can be learned. This appropriateness stems from the focus on human cognition and not external stimuli. Learning is more than a system of rewards and punishments.