Cognitive learning might not sound like a useful phrase. Cognition, after all, means ‘to acquire knowledge through thought, experience, and the senses’.

And as that is pretty much is what ‘learning’ means (what other ways are there to learn?), at first blush, it sounds like I’m just repeating myself. Fortunately, the idea of cognitive learning is a bit more interesting than me writing how we should ‘completely eliminate’ racism or how I ‘crept softly’ into my bedroom.

How so? Well, the idea of cognitive learning is best understood to mean learning using all the different features of the brain, such as embracing the interests, the biases, the strengths, and the weaknesses. In this way, we work with the brain in order to help it learn, rather than trying to force it to learn despite itself.

Why that matters

The truth is, for most of our history, we’ve tried to force-feed the next generation the important lessons we felt they had to learn. So, school children not so long ago would sit there and repeat the times’ table back at the teachers over and over again, even though this bored everybody involved in tears. Enjoyment was thought to not belong in schools. It served no purpose and, therefore, had no place there.

As we come to understand how our brains function, we’re coming to realize that this theory of learning is severely lacking. Why? Because such things as interest and engagement are incredibly powerful tools to help students capture and retain information.

Similarly, by linking what people are learning to what is relevant for them already, we make use of what we understand of the semantic networks in our brains to fit the new lessons into what they already know. This means that information does not just float around freely but is actually anchored to what we already know.

This has several effects:

  1. We learn more during the time we spend on the task.
  2. We find it easier to spend longer learning.
  3. What we learn sticks around longer.

And that matters – particularly as the further our society advances and we gather ever more knowledge, the more we all have to learn as individuals in order to function. And so, it is important that we use these modern tools to learn more as adults and to teach more to our children.

So what are the ways we can use the power of cognitive learning?

Explicit learning

This is what you’re most familiar with and what is traditionally thought to be learning. You sit down and explicitly try to learn something. This can be the times table, the internet, or how to write in a programming language.

Implicit learning

Most of the advanced things we master in life pass through two stages. First, we learn them explicitly. This is where you sit down and study the rules of grammar, the place of keys on a keyboard, how to drive a car, or what six times three equals.

Then, at a certain stage, this explicit learning starts to become internalized. You no longer have to think ‘where is the a’ in order to type that ‘a’. Similarly, you start applying the rules of grammar automatically as you internalize them.

The thing is, what we’re realizing now is that it is entirely possible for some lessons to bypass explicit learning entirely. This is what a lot of new language learning software like Memrise and Duolingo rely upon. They expose learners to phrases and words and the people taking the test figure out the grammar rules behind those phrases on their own.

Collaborative learning

We’re social creatures. In fact, our greatest asset compared to other animals is how well we can work together. Naturally, as we evolved as a species of collaborators, our learning has evolved along with it.

As a result, as the psychologist Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber explain in their book The Enigma of Reason, the best way we learn is often through cooperation and collaboration with others.

This allows us to combat each other’s cognitive biases and come closer to the truth than we can do individually. It also motivates us through a whole range of social emotions which keep us moving forward far beyond what we might do if we were going at it alone.

Emotional learning

You’ve probably heard of emotional intelligence by now. But did you know that if you teach people to be more emotionally intelligent, they will often be able to learn other things better as well?

In effect, this was a big part of traditional teaching. Students weren’t just learning how to multiply, they were also learning how to multiply while being incredibly bored.

Of course, now we know that there are other ways to teach emotional intelligence and the additional benefits. This ranges from simply teaching people to exist in the moment – as they did in one school through the practice of breathing buddies – to teaching them how to emotionally regulate.

Once these learn these things, they find it much easier to stay focused on the rest of the lessons they have to learn.

Meaningful learning

This is the type of cognitive learning mentioned above, whereby you try to make certain that what people are learning fits into what they already know. This means that you don’t just get people to solve math problems but instead, present them as problems that they might encounter in their daily lives.

When people are presented with new knowledge in this way, they often find it far easier to apply it to the world around them. And the more they apply it, the stronger their understanding of the lesson becomes.

The best way to achieve meaningful learning is to not just explain things abstractly, but make it directly applicable to what the person is going through. This can be achieved by the use of examples or by asking students to imagine how they could apply this in their lives around them.

For example, as a teacher, you could ask a student to take the abstract lesson and reformulate it into a word problem that they might encounter in their environment.

When you’re trying to learn something, you can do the same thing yourself, by imagining how you could relevantly apply the lesson to your life. Yes, that does mean daydreaming about your lessons is worthwhile!

Discovery learning

This form of cognitive learning is where instead of a teacher or a book telling you what the lesson is, you teach (or learn) by discovering the answer yourself. This is why science classes often let people do experiments – as in doing them, they can discover the answers to problems themselves.

The great thing about discovery learning is that it turns the student from a passive observer into an active participant. And that will let them often discover not just the primary lesson that’s being taught but a whole bunch of additional lessons as well.

Learning by doing fits neatly into our past. After all, for most of human history, we didn’t put ourselves in school benches. Instead, we learned through imitation and trials. So naturally, our brains are going to find it easier to work that way.


And then finally, there is learning about learning. In effect, that’s what this article is about. The more we understand about how we learn, the easier we’ll find it to apply the lessons and therefore, learn our lessons far more quickly.

That is not the only level at which metacognition matters, however. Metacognition is also the understanding that all of us learn differently. Some people are very good at learning in groups. Others, however, will find it difficult to work together. Some people are naturally good at regulating their emotions and keeping at a task, while others need all the help they can get to control their emotions.

In other words, we all have different learning profiles. Understanding that this is the case and that we all learn in different ways can make it easier for us to find the ways that we learn at our best. Do we find it easier to learn from books or from videos? Do we do best listening to experts or experimenting by ourselves?

By thinking about thinking, we’re can make sure that we don’t only learn in an effective way, but that we do so in ways that stay interesting and enjoyable at the same time.

Why we need cognitive learning: putting it all together

By understanding, experimenting, and working with the different ways we learn, we can make sure that we learn more quickly than we otherwise would. Even better, by embracing different techniques at different times, we’re training ourselves to think more flexibly and effectively.

That means that we’re not just going to learn our lessons better, but also boost and expand the plasticity of our brains going forward. That will help us become more proficient learners, as well as better at critical thinking, applying the lessons we’ve learned and become better at analyzing shortcomings in thinking.

In this way, cognitive learning doesn’t just help us learn. It helps us become better and more critical thinkers. And that will give us the equipment to not just do our jobs but live our lives, and participate in building the society that we want to be a part of.

So, far from being an inane repetition, cognitive learning has a huge amount of potential to shape ourselves, our children, and our society. And so, it’s a good thing indeed that more and more people are embracing it as the go-to learning technique.

Valerie Soleil, B.A., LL.B.

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    thank you so much for this information because i learn more and i am confident that many will be learning also. In particular as promoter of collaborative leadership and learning, this article push me to more collaborative leader and learner

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