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The Zombie Model of Cognitivism

Last week, I wrapped up two undergraduate-level game design courses with final workshop sessions, and I wanted them to be an enjoyable experience for everyone.

If there’s one thing teaching should accomplish, it’s this: show students a field, its tools, and its biggest challenges in inspiring ways and help them find and solve challenges which a) they find interesting and b) are manageable at their current level of expertise in terms of skill, knowledge, understanding, and attitude. With that, you provide everything that’s needed: autonomy, mastery, purpose, and also—as solving interesting problems almost always demands collaboration—relatedness.

When I was a student, working together existed mostly as group work or team papers, and I hated both. So I always try to set up my workshop sessions in ways even my freshman self would appreciate. As you might have guessed already, the learning theory I’m trying to follow, to these ends and in general, is constructivism, not cognitivism.

Cognitivism is more or less what you experienced in school. It’s about communicating simplified and standardized knowledge to the students in the most efficient and effective manner, who are supposed to memorize this knowledge in a first step, and then memorize the use of that knowledge in a second step by solving simplified and standardized problems. Sounds familiar, right? Cognitivism is all about memory and mental states and knowledge transfer. It’s not at all about creating curiosity, facilitating exploration, or providing purpose. Cognitivism doesn’t foster and stimulate mastery goals and personal growth (getting really good at something), it focuses instead on performance goals (getting better grades, and getting better grades than others). There’s no autonomy to speak of, only strict curricula and nailed-down syllabi and standardized testing. And there’s no relatedness to speak of either, because there’s no collaboration or cocreation beyond the aforementioned occasional group work or team paper. Because real collaboration and cocreation would mess up standardized testing and individual grading.

Constructivist learning theory, in contrast, is about everything cognitivism ignores: interests, exploration, autonomy, mastery goals, purpose, and relatedness through collaborative and cocreative problem-solving. Certainly, constructivism has its own tough challenges to navigate, but that’s no different from any other learning theory, like cognitivism or behaviorism. According to constructivism, students learn through experiences—along which they create internal representations of the things in the world, and attach meaning to these internal representations. Thus, it’s not about learning facts and procedures but developing concepts and contexts—by exploring a field’s authentic problem space, picking a challenge, and then exploring the field’s current knowledge space and its tool boxes to solve that challenge. The critical role of the teacher is to provide assistance and turn unknown unknowns into known unknowns, so that students can develop a better understanding of the scope, the scale, and the difficulties involved. Without the latter, learning and problem-solving can easily become a frustrating experience instead of an enjoyable one.

And that’s what I mean by enjoyable. In practice, in my final workshop sessions, everybody can pick a problem they’re burning to solve, gather like-minded fellow students, and try to solve that problem together in a breakout room by applying the knowledge and the tools we’ve explored and collected along the course. Or, alternatively, they can stay in the “main track” and tackle a challenge whose rough outlines I set up in advance, moderated by me. In the end, every group presents their findings and shares their most interesting insights.

That’s a setup even my younger self would have appreciated! Everyone can, but by no means has to, shoulder the burden of responsibility by adopting a challenge. Everyone can, but by no means has to, win over other students for a challenge, or join an individual group. Everyone can decide to stay in the main track, which is perfectly fine.

The problem with cognitivism is not that it doesn’t want to die, it’s that is hasn’t noticed it’s already dead. Just think about it: almost everybody can tell, or knows somebody who can tell, an uplifting story about that one outstanding teacher who inspired them despite everything else going down in school. But the very foundation of our educational system is that it’s supposed to work independently of any specific individual, of any specific outstanding teaching performance.

Should we ever design a framework to accomplish this, which might or might not happen in the future, that makes our educational system truly work on the system level, cognitivism certainly isn’t it. Cognitivism is a shambling zombie that, over time, has gradually slipped into its second career as a political fetish.