Processes for learners’ cognitive needs

Does the educational experience match the learner’s cognitive needs and provide appropriate challenge?

Cognition refers to the mental processes involved in gaining knowledge and understanding. These include thinking, knowing, remembering, judging, and problem solving. These high-level functions of the brain draw on capabilities such as language and perception. The future promise of neuroscience is considerable (see Howard-Jones, 2007) but social and cultural factors remain crucial in classroom teaching and learning processes.

The brilliance of Vygotsky’s psychology derives from his insight in relating cognitive, social and cultural factors together. So we meet each pupil’s cognitive needs through social processes of teaching and learning, and the understanding that is developed relates to culturally embedded knowledge. Crucially, the teacher mediates between knowledge and learner. A teacher’s explanation, questions, discussion, or structured task, provides another type of scaffolding – if they are appropriately framed. In these cases, the teacher combines challenge and support so that the learner is encouraged to extend their understanding. There is a good introduction to Vygotsky’s work, with classroom case studies, at:


Differentiation: are curriculum tasks and activities structured appropriately to match the intellectual needs of learners?

Curriculum goals must be converted to tasks and activities and then presented to learners in ways to which they can relate. Too difficult, and frustration often follows; too easy, and boredom may result. The goal is to match the learner and the task so that he or she feels appropriately challenged. Pleasure from success then reinforces learning. But since all learners are different, there is considerable skill in achieving a differentiated match.

Three basic strategies can be used to achieve this:

  • vary the task: so slightly different tasks are set to meet the needs of particular individuals or groups;
  • vary the expected outcomes: so whilst the whole class would participate in the same tasks and activities, pupil performance would be judged using specific criteria; and
  • vary the level of support: so reference books or a classroom assistant might support some children, whilst others would work alone (see


Dialogue: does teacher-learner talk scaffold understanding to build on existing knowledge and to strengthen dispositions to learn?

'Whole-class interactive teaching' describes structured, teacher-controlled but pupil-active methods – such as the National Strategies in England aimed to provide. Questioning in challenging, engaging and respectful ways is an important way in which pupil understanding can be extended.

Dialogic teaching takes this further to engage the teacher and learner together and to explicitly use language as a tool for learning (Mercer and Littlejohn, 2007). Research suggests that such responsive scaffolding of learning supports longer-term commitment to learning. Alexander (2006) identified these five characteristics:

  • collective: teachers and children address learning tasks together;
  • reciprocal: teachers and children listen to each other, share ideas and consider alternative viewpoints;
  • supportive, children articulate their ideas freely and confidently;
  • cumulative: teachers and children build on each other’s ideas; and
  • purposeful: teachers plan and steer classroom talk in relation to educational goals.


Feed-back: is there a routine flow of constructive, specific, diagnostic feedback from teacher to learners?

Providing appropriate feedback to learners has one of the largest measurable effects of any teaching strategy (Hattie, 2009). This fact underlies ‘assessment for learning’ (Black and William, 1998) which has now been taken up in many school systems across the world. Such formative assessment is an integral part of pedagogy and is designed to help learners grow their capacity to manage their own learning. The TLRP project on Learning How to Learn (James et al, 2007) showed that the most effective teachers have frameworks of subject and developmental understanding which enable them to respond constructively to pupils’ attempts to learn. Such diagnostic and knowledgeable flexibility is essential, so assessment for learning benefits from supportive school and policy contexts. Peer and self-assessment feedback extends this principle further, enabling learners to begin to evaluate learning independently, for themselves.

See also TLRP’s Commentary, Assessment in Schools: Fit for purpose (Mansell et al, 2009).