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University of Wyoming

Although cognitivism began in the field of psychology, its greatest contributions have been in the field of education

Impact on Adulthood | Robert Mills Gagne' | Steps of Instruction | Overview of Theory

How Do Thinking Processes Affect Adulthood?

Many of the more recent stage theorists, who work in the area of cognitive development, emphasize people's thinking processes. Their work casts serious doubt on the view that there is a cognitive decline as a consequence of aging. Development, including cognitive development, depends on the dynamic interaction of many variables and is not a fixed, inevitable or strictly maturational process. Thus we can still talk about 'potential' when discussing adult development-the concept is not confined to child growth and development. The theorist who asked the question whether adult thinking was the same as that of a mature adolescent, was Jean Piaget (1972). His theory of cognitive development culminates in the stage of formal operations (the ability to use abstract concepts such as formal logic). His studies indicated that this stage was reached by adolescence. However, even twenty years ago, he wondered whether this was the 'end' of cognitive development. He predicted that because of people's experiences in work and social relationships, their thinking processes would change. Allman (in Tight, 1983: 109) supports Piaget's notion by suggesting that:

This concept of thought becoming progressively adaptive through interaction with adult life experiences is central to a great deal of the theory and research which has emerged in the study of adult development.

Most of Piaget's work was carried out with children but the general principles are of relevance to adults as well. Development is dependent on age (physical and neural maturation), experience and social context. The processes of learning are assimilation-where we take in information and encode it into our existing cognitive structures-and accommodation-where we are sufficiently challenged by new material to recode or change our existing cognitive structures in order to take in the new material. Tasks which are too simple and boring or tasks way beyond our capacity for cognitive accommodation are not likely to give rise to learning.

Identify tasks in your workplace that do not lend themselves to 'cognitive accommodation'.

Piaget talks about adulthood as the stage of formal operations where there is no longer a need to tie thinking to concrete expressions. Thus, abstract principles can be applied to many different situations, including hypothetical ones.

Lawrence Kohlberg and Rochelle Meyer (1972) are other stage theorists. They postulated stages of moral development-based on Piaget's stages of cognitive development. The last two stages are seen to be adult stages. Stage Five in Kohlberg & Meyer's model reflects a responsibility towards others while Stage Six relates one's moral decisions to universal and abstract ethical principles.

Darkenwald and Merriam (1982: 98) sum up the value of stage theories by suggesting:

Whether concerned with moral issues, psychological development, or socially oriented tasks and roles unique to adulthood, stage theories are relevant to adult educators. Although varying in their emphasis upon the self and the social context, stage models are useful for the insight each provides into human development over the life span. The tasks to be grappled with, the conflicts to be resolved, the growth to be accomplished at each stage or juncture all involve some form of learning.

What criticisms could be advanced with respect to a dependence on stage theories as a means of determining 'where adults are at'?

Robert Mills Gagne'

Gagne's theory of classroom instruction is based on the belief that skills to be learned should be stated as performance objectives. To identify essential prerequisite skills, task analysis is used, after which instructional events are selected for each learning objective. Gagne's instructional theory has been used for instructional technology design because it specifies the conditions of learning and provides a procedure to follow. His work on task analysis has been popular in both classroom instructional and instructional technology. Task analysis led to a belief in a hierarchy of skills, from simple to complex, and the belief that each component skill can be isolated and taught. Within these skill hierarchies, Gagne initially identified eight Types of Learning: signal learning, stimulus-response learning, chaining, verbal association, discrimination learning, concept learning, principle learning, and problem solving.

Gagne's Nine Stepsof Instruction to guide instruction:

1. Gain attention of learner.

2. State objectves or expected outcome of instruction.

3. Stimulate recall of relevant pre-requisite knowledge

4. Present stimuli inherent to learning.

5. Offer guidance.

6. Provide feedback

7. Evaluate

8. Provide for transfer of information

9. Enhance retention and transfer of learning.

Present a good problem, a new situation, use a multimedia advertisement.

State what students will be able to accomplish and how they will be able to use the knowledge, give a demonstration if appropriate.

Remind the student of prior knowledge relevant to the current lesson. Show how knowledge is connected, provide the student with a framework that helps learning and remembering. Tests can be included.

Text, graphics, simulations, figures, pictures, sound, etc. Follow a consistent presentation style, chunking information. (Avoid memory overload, recall information)

Presentation of content is different from instructions on how to learn. Should be simpler and easier than content. Use of different channel.

Show correctness of the trainee's response, analyze learner's behavior (or let him do it) maybe present a good, step-by-step, solution to the problem

Test if the lesson has been learned. Also, sometimes give general progress information.

Let the learner do something with the newly acquired behavior, practice skills or apply knowledge.

Inform the learner about similar problem situations, provide additional practice. Put the learner in a transfer situation. Maybe let the learner review the lesson.

While much more might be said about Gagne, understanding the nine events and behaviorism are the essential ingredients for applications to instructional technology. As more influence is felt from constructivism, alternatives to Gagne's work and to instructional design are being sought.

Overview of the Main Points


Another important aspect of cognition related to learning in adulthood is the notion of cognition style. Cognitive styles are characterized as consistencies in information processing that develop in concert with underlying personality traits. A number of cognitive-style dimensions including the concept of global and analytical processing styles, have been indentified through research




Internal mental process including insight, information processing, memory and perception


Develop capacity and skills to learn better


Structures content of learning activity


Interpret sensations and apply meaning to the events.


Cognitive development learning how to learn, intelligence learning and memory as function of age.


Internal cognitive structuring