How do we learn what we know?

B E H A V I O R A L and C O G N I T I V E research is the basis for two, primary explanations of learning. Behavioral psychologists focused on the learner's observable outside behaviors and the role of external stimuli in changing those behaviors. Cognitive researchers behaved differently.

Psychologists such as Lev Vygotsky, Jean Piaget and Jerome Bruner thought of learning as an internal, mental process. Instead of changes in behavior, they focused on changes in knowledge. Vygotsky, Piaget and Bruner concluded that learners were engaged in the process of expanding their personal conceptions and "schemas." Schemas are defined as abstract knowledge structures that organize large amounts of information. Cognitive psychologists believe a critical factor in learning what we know -- is the knowledge we've already learned.

Vygotsky observed that a student's level of development provides "a window of opportunity for a range of activities." At each stage of development, the lower window limit is determined by previously established knowledge and skills. The upper limit, Vygotsky's "zone of proximal development," is determined when student assignments can only be successfully completed with outside instruction.

Jean Piaget identified the internal methods students use to adapt their schemas, as assimilation and accommodation. He determined that the process was instigated by conflicting schema which caused "disequilibrium." Students were motivated to learn by what he termed a "natural desire for equilibrium."

Another key concept associated with Piaget -- and Jerome Bruner -- is "scaffolding student learning." Scaffolding involves pointed guidance and assistance from the instructor to build on student knowledge and raise the Window of Opportunity.

Most importantly, Bruner and the other cognitive psychologists emphasized that individual learners construct individual understandings and schemas. The careful scaffolding of a student's learning may prompt new connections and "equilibrium" points. Finally though, students only learn when they make sense of things, internalize their new experience and take "ownership" of what they know.