Course 3506S

Cognitive Structure Notes

Cognitive Structure

Most people feel that they know what common words like "bread" and "concentrate" mean although most can think of more than one meaning for each word. When faced with something like "chalder", few people feel that they know the meaning of the word. In fact, most are unsure that it actually is a word. If you hear "chalder" used in a few sentences, it is relatively easy for you to construct another sentence making similar use of "chalder", but it still may not convince you that it is a word. However, even if "chalder" should turn out to be a legitimate English word, few people would make it part of their vocabulary. One reason for this reluctance is that "chalder" would not mean anything to other people with whom one might converse.

This opens up the whole area of meaning. Do words have meaning? The answer to that question depends on how you use words. For instance, it would depend on what you mean when you use the words such as "words," "have," and "meaning." If you mean to ask the question, "Do the physical representations (symbolic marks on pieces of paper, or sound waves in the air) that we call words have (in the sense of possessing within themselves) meaning (a message that can be perceived by others)", then the answer clearly is, "No."

Perhaps, though, if meaning is not found in individual words, larger language units may be the containers of meaning. For instance, many people might argue that the expression "Time flies" is well known and most of us know what it means. However, if another person says, "You can't. They fly too fast", the feeling of being sure of the meaning begins to evaporate. We start to become aware that the question "What does that (word or sentence) mean?" is a less useful question than "What does that person mean by that (word or sentence)?" Because many sentences are open to a variety of interpretations, we become aware that their meaning is not to be found in the words or the sentences themselves.

Another type of sentence brings a different sort of problem. Sentences such as:

The notes were sour because the seam split


The man saw his face in the body

don't suggest multiple meanings to most people – they don't suggest any meaning at all until they are accompanied by the keywords "bagpipes" and "new car", respectively. Thus, in a different way, these "meaningless" sentences also show us that meaning does not reside in the words or in the sentences. When we read these sentences we are likely to become consciously aware of striving to apply a meaning to the words. Cognitive psychologists tell us that we do the same thing with more usual sentences, but we are seldom aware of doing it.

All this is not to say that words are not important. On the contrary, sometimes the removal of a single word from a message may make it all but impossible for us to find any meaning for the message. Therefore words are very important indeed. Nor is this argument intended to suggest that we can use words in any way we please because they don't have meaning anyway. Although words do not actually possess meaning in and of themselves, communities and societies use words in fairly regular ways. If we did not do this we would lose our ability to communicate through language.

Then what is the point of all this? It is merely to make it clear that meaning does not lie in words, or even in language. Meaning lies in PEOPLE.

We give words at least two kinds of meanings:

  1. Denotative meaning – a word may serve as a pointer to a meaning which is, we hope, shared by many people. It may indicate an object or action or quality, e.g., book, catch, shiny.
  2. Connotative meaning – a word such as "mother" is often used in a denotative manner, but it also has associations, positive or negative, for most people. These associations are the connotative meaning of the word for a person. Connotative meanings frequently are accompanied by very strong emotional reactions, e.g., some people will shiver just on hearing the word "spider".

In this technical sense, a connotative meaning is not an unusual or colloquial use of a word. For instance, if a small child refers to a moving van as an "bus", this is NOT a connotative use of the word "bus". It is certainly a non-standard use of the word, but the child is using a label to point to a particular kind of object. Therefore the child is using the word "bus" in a denotative manner. If the child used this word and simultaneously felt ill-at-ease (or relaxed or exhilarated or . . . ) then, in addition to the denotative sense of "bus" as a large vehicle for transporting heavy items, the child would have a connotative meaning which would be the emotion or value attached to the concept which the word signifies to the child. However, it would be safe to assume that most likely a child who calls a moving van a "bus" would be using the word "bus" mainly denotatively.

Cognitive psychologists hypothesize the existence of a cognitive structure in each person's head. Cognitive structure may be thought of as a large and intricately linked series of associations among words, concepts, and whatever other mental entities there might be. Frank Smith uses the term "the theory of the world in the head" to refer to cognitive structure. Thus, in cognitive terms, meaning is in our cognitive structures.

Many cognitive psychologists use the concept of a schema (plural "schemata") as the basic element of cognitive structure. Knowledge stored in memory is represented in schemata. We organize our experience in terms of schemata They are bodies of knowledge, but relevant only to a limited domain. Schemata may be composed of references to other schemata. for instance, a schema for computers may be related to a schema for word processors which may in turn be related to general schemata for writing without electronic aids. A schema may be specific such as my schema for my computer. I may have another schema for a typical computer—a more generalized machine than my particular computer.

An example of how schemata may be used arises through an examination of the following passage constructed by Bransford and Johnson. This intentionally vague set of instructions was used in some research studies concerned with memory.

The procedure is actually quite simple. First you arrange items into different groups. Of course, one pile may be sufficient depending on how much there is to do. If you have to go somewhere else due to lack of facilities that is the next step; otherwise, you are pretty much set. It is important not to overdo things. That is, it is better to do too few things at once than too many. In the short run this may not seem important but complications can easily arise. A mistake can be expensive as well. At first, the whole procedure will seem complicated. Soon, however, it will become just another facet of life. It is difficult to foresee any end to the necessity for this task in the immediate future., but then, one never can tell. After the procedure is completed one arranges the materials into different groups again. Then they can be put into their appropriate places. Eventually they will be used once more and the whole cycle will then have to be repeated. However, that is part of life.

You might want to have a guess at what this is all about before you read further. You likely won't be surprised to hear that people who read this and then tried to recall it showed poor performance both on recall and comprehension. However, adding the title "Washing Clothes" transforms the situation. Cognitive psychologists say that the title activates our schemata for doing laundry and gives us a basis for interpreting the vague statements in the directions. This is a significant point for teachers to realize. It is also important to note that the help one gets from the title depends on how well developed one's schemata for washing clothes may be.

In case you think this example is too contrived to be relevant to real life, consider the following passage taken verbatim from a university-level mathematics textbook:

Evaluation of definite integrals. The calculus of residues provides a very efficient tool for the evaluation of definite integrals. It is particularly important when it is impossible to find the indefinite integral explicitly, but even if the ordinary methods of calculus can be applied the use of residues is frequently a laborsaving device. The fact that the calculus of residues yields complex rather than real integrals is no disadvantage, for clearly the evaluation of a complex integral is equivalent to the evaluation of two definite integrals.

And we all nod and agree, "Of course." If we don't have schemata for calculus, residues, integrals, and more, this passage is about as meaningful as the "Washing Clothes" passage without its title. That is, without the appropriate schemata, we cannot find a meaning (at least not one that would satisfy mathematicians) to put onto the paragraph.

Some researchers use the terms "frame" or "script" to refer to basic elements of cognitive structure more or less equivalent to schemata. Frames and scripts are particularly popular terms with investigators who build computer models of human information processing. Scripts are sets of expectations and rules for performing in various situations in life. For instance, almost all of us have a restaurant script which guides our conduct in a restaurant. We expect to wait until led to a table by a hostess or head waiter. We expect to be provided with a menu. We expect to select foods from the menu and have them delivered by a waiter or waitress. Many of us expect to have a bill delivered to us and expect that we will be expected to leave more money than is required by the bill. Thus a script is useful for guiding our actions in situations which we are familiar with or which are similar to familiar situations.

We may take this version of the restaurant script to be the standard. Many people will have variations on the standard which enable them to make sense of nonstandard eating places such as McDonalds.

Note: What is considered to be "standard" is a matter of a person's experience. For many North American children and adolescents, McDonalds would be the standard and a "please wait to be seated" restaurant would be the exception.

Children often reason in ways which seem strange to adults. These unusual ways of thinking may be due to less extensive cognitive structures in children. Jean Piaget found many striking peculiarities in the thought of children during the course of his studies, as we noted in the Development notes. Before Piaget, Robert Louis Stevenson seemed to capture a child's viewpoint very effectively in the well-known poem beginning "I have a little shadow who goes in and out with me."

While Piaget concluded that children reason in different ways than adults because they have qualitatively different mental operations than adults, he also suggested that there are commonalities in how children and adults think or perhaps to state it more appropriately, in how they learn. There is a common property in both children's and adults' approaches to the world – we all try to make sense of what we encounter. Piaget called this tendency adaptation and proposed that adaptation is carried out through two processes called assimilation and accommodation.

Assimilation and accommodation are processes that function simultaneously. We fit each experience as much as possible to existing mental structures which were constructed from previous experiences. This fitting of experience into existing schemata is the process of assimilation. At the same time, we make adjustments in each mental structure, or schema, to make it fit our experience. This is the process of accommodation.

For instance, when I started teaching at the university level I had a schema of education students. I thought of them as young people who had just graduated from a university program in some discipline with a B. A. or the equivalent. This was derived partly from my own experience and from things that I had been told by friends. As I met my actual students, I tried to make sense of them by fitting them into this schema – that is, by assimilating them. It didn't take long for me to find that this simple model didn't fit a lot of students. I had to change my schema to account for the reality of education students with graduate degrees. Recently I have had to expand it further to accommodate (both technically and colloquially) the idea of education students with extensive teaching experience.

If experience is totally unrelated to what we already know, we cannot assimilate it. A dynamic tension exists between our twin needs to understand, that is, to fit experience into a coherent and consistent structure, and to deal with new experiences, that is to change our structures of understanding. In Piaget's terms, learning results from the opposing processes (dialectics) of assimilation and accommodation. If assimilation ruled alone, we would construct completely idiosyncratic views of the world, distorting experience completely so that it would always fit our present view of reality. Thus, our mental structures would become increasingly unrelated to reality. If accommodation were the only process available to us, we would change our mental structures on the basis of every experience and there would be little organization to our minds. Concepts and general ideas which embrace similarities but overlook unimportant differences would not exist. We would regard every experience as totally unlike every other.

Equilibration is the name Piaget gave to a process which regulates the tension between assimilation and accommodation. Equilibration ensures that we learn through experiences that are a little different from previous experiences. Thus, our mental structures are modified, usually, in small steps. We learn most easily when new information is a little different from our existing information. In this way, the new information can be assimilated but still requires a small amount of accommodation. The small accommodations that are made prepare us to make future small accommodations so that our mental structures grow to "keep pace with" our experience. In this way, we are able to develop mental representations of the world that are fairly well related to reality and yet which are still organized and manageable.

Piaget taught that we acquire information through the processes of assimilation and accommodation and then the acquired information is organized. It is this organization which constitutes our cognitive structure.

Sometimes when new categories (schemata) are created in cognitive structure the old categories still remain. For instance, early in life we develop the notion that the sun "rises in the east, moves across the sky, and sets in the west." This is a perfectly good way of thinking about the sun in the sky for most everyday purposes. Later on, likely in school, we encounter the idea that the sun is relatively fixed in its position in the universe and that it is the earth that is simultaneously whizzing around the sun and rotating on its axis, thus giving the impression of the sun's movement. When we encounter this more scientific explanation we do not replace our old category with the new one. We store both away and use one or the other depending on the circumstances and the appropriateness of either explanation for the context in which we are operating. It is likely that even astronomers think and talk about the sun "rising" and "setting" when they are operating out of their scientific environment. In this case the accommodation that occurs when we learn the scientific explanation seems to be less of a restructuring of an old category and more of a creation of a brand new mental category. Hence both views are available to us.

H. A. Simon has stated:

"The capacity of the human mind for formulating and solving complex problems is very small compared with the size of the problem whose solution is required for objectively rational behavior in the real world – or even a reasonable approximation to such objective reality ... the first consequence of the principle of bounded rationality is that the intended rationality of an actor requires him to construct a simplified model of the real situation in order to deal with it. He behaves rationally with respect to this model, and such behavior is not even approximately optimal with respect to the real world. To predict his behavior, we must understand the way in which this simplified model is constructed, and its construction will certainly be related to his psychological properties as a perceiving, thinking, and learning animal."

That is, we have a limited capacity to deal with the information that the world puts before us. So we construct mental models of reality and do our thinking and reasoning in terms of our models. The model of the world that you have in your head is your total cognitive structure.

This is true of people in general and also applies to teachers and students as they try to make sense of the complexities of classroom life and of each other. If we adopt this view, classrooms become much more complicated places to understand and within which to function. You have three major factors making up classroom interactions. There is some subject matter under consideration, a teacher, and students. The teacher deals not with some pure representation of the subject matter, but a model of it. Also the teacher will have a model in mind of each student. Similarly, each student will have a model, however elementary, of the subject matter as well as a model of the teacher. Both teacher and students try to make sense of what goes on in their interactions in terms of these models which may of may not be adequate representations of reality. Small wonder that teaching and learning are difficult tasks.

Your cognitive structure can be an obstacle to dealing effectively with the world, on some occasions. One way in which difficulties arise is through the phenomenon know as a set. You are caught in a set when you try to apply a procedure which works well in some situations to another situation where it doesn't work well or doesn't work at all. We have all had the experience of getting "hung up" in trying to solve some problem. We struggle on usually applying some procedure unsuccessfully any number of times. Finally we give up. An hour or a day later we may return to the problem and find that the solution is very easy, using a different procedure than the one we had tried so hard to make work before.

Try the following on a friend:

"A deaf mute wished to purchase a toothbrush. He entered a drug store and approached the counter. Once he had the attention of the druggist, he showed his teeth and made rapid, short, up-and-down movements of his hand just in front of his teeth. The druggist immediately nodded, got several tooth brushes and laid them on the counter. The mute pointed to the one which he wanted. It was placed in a bag, paid for and the mute departed. Next, a blind man came in who wished to buy a comb. How did he make his need known?"

If your friend is typical of most people, he or she will suggest some sort of combing action. Few will say, "Why, he'd simply say 'I'd like to buy a comb'". People who suggest an action for the blind man's request are victims of a phenomenon known as a "set".

This phenomenon often interferes with effective problem solving and other learning in the classroom. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be any way of eradicating the problem. Any new procedure learned may become a potential set in a different situation. Even a generalized approach of being creative and searching for new viewpoints may be dysfunctional if the task is routine. Set is not just a negative phenomenon to be avoided. It is an inescapable phenomenon of human mental functioning.

You should also note that set is just as much a problem for teachers as it is for students. A teacher may approach a student using assumptions based on experience with a previous student. Often this is an effective procedure. There will, however, be times when the individual students will differ very much, despite surface similarities. If a teacher assumes that what worked with one ought to work with the other, the teacher may get caught in a set leading to frustration for both teacher and student.

As the term is used here, the set phenomenon indicates something more than a particular viewpoint or a tendency. We may say that someone has a "mind set" meaning that that person tends to view situations in a particular way. This is not the same as the set phenomenon. For the set phenomenon to be established, it is necessary to show that a person is persisting with an approach to a problem when that approach simply won't work or is in some way significantly less efficient than some alternative available approach.

Return to the Course 3070 Notes Page

Return to the Course 3070 Home Page