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Theories of Learning and Cognition—Essay Four


Prepared for
Dr. Marcy Driscoll
EDP 5216

John C. Bradley Jr.
December 11, 1990


Describe briefly (no more than a paragraph each) two learning situations. One should involve a case in which adults are learning some task or knowledge that is new to them. The second should involve a case in which school-age children are learning something new to them. These cases may be purely hypothetical, or they may come from your own experience.

For the remainder of the essay, discuss what similarities and differences you believe would inhere in the instruction designed to be maximally effective for the learning situations you described.


Adult Learning Situation

Let us suppose that a three-hour work-site wellness class is being taught to 100 employees of a state agency. Although participation in the class is not mandatory, some of the participants are attending simply to avoid work for a few hours. Since cigarette smoking is the single leading cause of morbidity and mortality in the United States, one of the instructional goals of the class is to persuade smokers to stop smoking.

Child Learning Situation

Let us suppose that we have a group of 30 third-graders in a public elementary school. These students, along with all children their age in the United States who will graduate high school in the year 2000, have been targeted as the "Smoke-Free Class of 2000." This project is a joint initiative of the American Heart Association, the American Lung Association, and the American Cancer Society. The major instructional goal of the project is to persuade children to never smoke.


The cognitive domain for both of these scenarios is that of attitudes. In the first instance, the learner must choose to stop smoking and, in the second instance, the learner must choose to never smoke. Gagné identifies three elements to attitudes--the cognitive component, the affective component, and the behavioral component. In both of the situations described above, learners must be taught the facts about smoking (e.g., smoking causes lung cancer and heart disease). Learners must also develop a negative feeling about smoking (e.g., "I don't want to smoke"). And, finally, learners must act (e.g., "I'm going to stop smoking by taking a smoking cessation class." or "I'm never going to smoke.").

In order to address these three components, Gagné says that we must supply learners of all ages with the verbal information, intellectual skills, or motor skills that are prerequisites of the desired behavior. For adult learners, this means telling smokers why smoking is detrimental to their health and providing them with the resources (such as smoking cessation strategies) to stop smoking. We must also provide the learner with a positive or negative emotional experience in relationship to the target behavior or a positive or negative effect upon a human model with which the learner identifies. With children, this might be accomplished by showing a non-smoking teenager who is well-liked by his peers and who is athletically successful.


There are, however, some distinct differences in learning strategies for these two target groups. Intellectually, children and adults are at different stages of development. According to Piaget, most third-grade children can only reason about concrete, familiar objects. Adults, on the other hand, can reason in the abstract. In terms of instruction regarding cigarette smoking, children must be exposed to the immediate, sensory unpleasantness of smoking. Instruction for children might emphasize, "Cigarettes make you cough, cigarettes make you smell bad, and cigarettes cost money that could be used to buy other things you might want." Adults, however, can be exposed to both immediate and long-term consequences of smoking. Instruction for adults might emphasize, "If you continue to smoke, you have a 50 percent chance of dying from cancer, heart disease, or lung disease."

Kohlberg says that most children have a morality that is black-and-white and externally oriented. That is, they accept the beliefs and opinions of their elders as their own almost without question and they apply these views quite literally. For most children, an act is either good or bad, regardless of potentially mitigating circumstances. For most adults, however, morality is internalized and relativistic. An act is judged by several criteria to see if it conflicts with one's personal values.

Applying this to instruction on cigarette smoking, if an adult tells a child that cigarette smoking is "bad," the child is very likely to accept this pronouncement as truth. Furthermore, the child is likely to label all smokers as "bad" people. While this may not be wholly desirable, it does make it relatively easy to influence the attitudes of children. Adults, on the other hand, will not unquestioningly accept the statement of another that smoking is "bad. " Most adults will examine smoking from several different perspectives and compare it to their internal value system. Therefore, compelling arguments must be presented to an adult smoker to convince him of her to stop smoking. In addition to intellectual information, very strong emotional messages must be incorporated into instruction.

A final difference between these two target groups is experience. Children have had little experience, thus they have little reason to challenge instruction on smoking. Adults, however, have a wealth of experience. They know the "benefits" of smoking and the difficulties involved with trying to quite. Effective instruction for adults on smoking must recognize this experience and use it to advantage.