Mankind and Learning

The early theories of social psychology were based mainly on the dominant paradigm of behaviourism. This was in the 1920s and 1930s when behaviourism was at its most influential, with the work of Pavlov, Skinner, Thorndike and others providing the theoretical base.               

The underlying theory was that of reforcement: if you do something and it is ‘rewarded’ you will do it again. Later modification to this theory was made by Bandura, who believed that in addition to rewards, a person’s belief and values, even feelings, needed to be taken into consideration to explain behaviour.

From this background of behaviourism emerged a change of emphasis. People began to be seen not just as a system responding to a stimulus or at a reward, but as having an involvement at an intellectual or cognitive level. Therefore, the cognitive theories began to modify and indeed replace behavioural theories.                                             

This shift in emphasis started in the 1930s with the work of Kurt Koffka and Wolfang Kohler. Both Koffka and Kohler were assistants to Max Wertheiner, whose original work was to open the door to a fresh understanding of peception and the way that illusion occurs in the mind. Wertheiner used the German word “Gestalt” to describe this form of perception.  

“Gestalt psychology was a system of psychology concerned with the nature of perception. German researchers like Kurt Koffka, Wolfgang Kohler, and Max Wertheiner studied the way in which perception was influenced by the context or configuration of elements perceived. Gestalt is a German word to mean “configuration or “pattern”.“

The proponents argued that the relationship among components, rather than their fixed characteristics, determines what is perceived. Thus a person conceives a whole or pattern that may be much more than the collection of individual elements: for example, an oral shape is perceived as the round top of a table in the context of a dining room.

 The word “Cognitive” is an adjective derived from the noun cognition which mean, ‘to know’. Those learnt actions, outcomes or products which are knowledge based or depend on the need to be demonstrated or executed are cognitive types of learning.

Cognitive learning products can also be seen as learning products which have to do with thinking and reasoning: for example, reading, understanding, recognizing, reviewing, describing, analyzing, stating, comparing and contrasting.           

Cognitive strategies has been describes as that which can be used to analyse cognitive problem-solving. The problem solving strategy involves many processes and a combination of processes operating together to reach a solution or a goal. The cognitive strategies are the ways by which a learner manages and control his own learning. Cognitive strategies are learnt by learners.

The cognitive theory of learning which originated from the University of Frankfurt in Germany, viewed that a response to a whole situation is a whole response to the whole situation. They believe that the concepts of S-R is too unintelligent, atomistic, and mechanistic. The word Gestalt is interpreted as configuration or pattern or form or organized whole.

 The proponents of the cognitive theory of learning believed that the Stimulus – Response theory of learning is very mechanical – almost like wiring a house. Once all the wires are correctly connected to the mains, switches and light bulbs, slight touch of a button (or switch) will produce light in the desired location.

The Stimulus-Response theory of learning is on the creation of bounds or connections. Given the right environment, all that is really necessary would seem to be the choosing of stimuli, finding substituting or conditioning stimuli and then contiguously presenting adequate reinforcement, then you will get the desired learning.

 For the cognitists, what is important is the way the individual perceives his field or life space and tries to make sense of it by organizing and interpreting it, using his mental apparatus or intelligence. The learners metal plan or gestalt (in Germany) is a major idea in the cognitive theory of learning. Their explanation of the process of learning is the problem solving, and this leads to knowing.

The proponents, Max Weitheiner (1880 – 1943); Kurt Koffka (1886 – 1941); Wolfgang Korler (1887 – 1967); Kurtlerin (1890 – 1947); John Derey, Tolman, E.C; Gordon Allpart, among others believed that the cognitive theory places the learner’s cognitive structure and his motivation at the heart of learning. They believe that learning takes place when the learner, using her mental plan or gestalt, re-organizes the problem field to gain insight which leads to problem resolution.

 In one study Wolfgang Kohler conducted an experiment involving a chimpanzee named Sultan. Sultan was squatting in his cage, and outside was a bunch of banana fruits. The only available stick inside the cage was too short to reach the fruits.

Outside the cage was lying a longer stick, which Sultan could not reach with his outstretched hands. Sultan tried to reach the fruits first with his outstretched hands, and then later with the short stick that was inside the cage many times without success. Then sultan paused, gazed about him, and scrutinized the whole area or field.

Then suddenly, sultan picked up the short stick and with it moved the longer stick, which was lying outside the cage towards him, grabbed it, and moved smoothly and purposely to a position where he could reach fruits. He dragged the bananas inside and ate then. The cognitive field theory, insight and perceptual organization are very important.


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