Cognitive Constructivism – William G. Perry

Dissatisfaction with behaviorism’s strict focus on observable behavior led educational psychologists such as Jean Piaget and William Perry to demand an approach to learning theory that paid more attention to what went on “inside the learner’s head.” They developed a cognitive approach that focused on mental processes rather than observable behavior. Common to most cognitivist approaches is the idea that knowledge comprises symbolic mental representations, such as propositions and images, together with a mechanism that operates on those representations. Knowledge is seen as something that is actively constructed by learners based on their existing cognitive structures. Therefore, it is relative to their stage of cognitive development; understanding the learner’s existing intellectual framework is central to understanding the learning process.


Behaviorists maintain that knowledge is a passively absorbed behavioral repertoire. Cognitive constructivists reject that claim, arguing instead that knowledge is actively constructed by learners and that any account of knowledge makes essential references to cognitive structures. Knowledge comprises active systems of intentional mental representations derived from past learning experiences. Each learner interprets experiences and information in the light of their extant knowledge, their stage of cognitive development, their cultural background, their personal history, and so forth. Learners use these factors to organize their experience and to select and transform new information. Knowledge is therefore actively constructed by the learner rather than passively absorbed; it is essentially dependent on the standpoint from which the learner approaches it.


Because knowledge is actively constructed, learning is presented as a process of active discovery. The role of the instructor is not to drill knowledge into students through consistent repetition, or to goad them into learning through carefully employed rewards and punishments. Rather, the role of the teacher is to facilitate discovery by providing the necessary resources and by guiding learners as they attempt to assimilate new knowledge to old and to modify the old to accommodate the new. Teachers must thus take into account the knowledge that the learner currently possesses when deciding how to construct the curriculum and to present, sequence, and structure new material.


Unlike behaviorist learning theory, where learners are thought to be motivated by extrinsic factors such as rewards and punishment, cognitive learning theory sees motivation as largely intrinsic. Because it involves significant restructuring of existing cognitive structures, successful learning requires a major personal investment on the part of the learner (Perry, 1999, p. 54). Learners must face up to the limitations of their existing knowledge and accept the need to modify or abandon existing beliefs. Without some kind of internal drive on the part of the learner to do so, external rewards and punishments such as grades are unlikely to be sufficient.


Cognitivist teaching methods aim to assist students in assimilating new information to existing knowledge, and enabling them to make the appropriate modifications to their existing intellectual framework to accommodate that information. Thus, while cognitivists allow for the use of “skill and drill” exercises in the memorization of facts, formulae, and lists, they place greater importance on strategies that help students to actively assimilate and accommodate new material. For instance, asking students to explain new material in their own words can assist them in assimilating it by forcing them to re-express the new ideas in their existing vocabulary. Likewise, providing students with sets of questions to structure their reading makes it easier for them to relate it to previous material by highlighting certain parts and to accommodate the new material by providing a clear organizational structure.

Because learning is largely self-motivated in the cognitivist framework, cognitivists such as A. L. Brown and J. D. Ferrara have also suggested methods which require students to monitor their own learning. For instance, the use of ungraded tests and study questions enables students to monitor their own understanding of the material. Other methods that have been suggested include the use of learning journals by students to monitor progress and highlight any recurring difficulties, and to analyze study habits.


Perry, W. G. (1999). Forms of Ethical and Intellectual Development in the College Years. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.


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