The importance of cognitive thinking for the improvement of our educational system

These days you often hear people, especially psychologists and educators, talking about cognitive thinking. It clearly is the flavour of the month, even though it is nothing new. And as is usual with newly invented or newly discovered terminology people sometimes misuse and misunderstand it.     And then there are those who go one step further by talking about cognitive behaviour, cognitive skills, cognitive dissonance, etc. Even so, when we look closely at what cognitive thinking means it is clear that we need to pay careful attention to it if we are to improve our educational system. Many regard cognitive thinking as the cause and solution of our problems in education. Let’s look at some definitions of cognitive thinking:

“Cognitive thinking is the process of obtaining knowledge through thought, experience, and the senses. From Latin ‘to consider’ – it means to think deeply on … knowing or apprehending by the understanding of something”[1]

“Cognitive is another word for thinking or thoughts.”[2]

“…cognition is a group of mental processes that include attention, memory, producing and understanding language, learning, reasoning, problem solving, and decision making.”[3]


The value of cognitive thinking is not so much vested in gaining new knowledge, but rather in how people reason about concepts and their observations. Through the ages human beings used cognitive thinking to survive, i.e. to adapt to change. That is why it is most useful to teachers as a tool by means of which to teach learners to contextualise and articulate the knowledge that they gain at school. Of course this applies to adult learners as well, but in this article we are more concerned about the dire need for better education at school. Cognitive thinking provides children with an internal drive to explore the world. Especially young children are curious about the world around them and most of them love to discover new things and new experiences. Children use all their senses to make new discoveries and the diligent teacher will utilise this to ensure efficient and effective learning. The teacher should provide the child with all possible stimuli to gain a variety of experiences. We use cognitive skills whenever we try to understand anything. This is how it works:[4]

  1. You are taught something – some new information.
  2. You think about it.
  3. You talk about it in your own words.
  4. You notice how this new information fits into other things that you know.


From the above you can see that cognitive thinking includes two primary processes, namely assimilation, i.e. the incorporation of new knowledge; and accommodation, i.e. the way the mental processes adapt to the new knowledge.[5] Assimilation and accommodation leads to learning. In cognitive thinking knowledge is applied to gain experience and to become proficient in a particular skill. In this respect both positive and negative experiences are important – the child who experiences the delight of keeping his or her balance while riding a bicycle for the first time learns as much from the enjoyment as he or she does from the pain and humiliation of losing his or her balance and falling.


Cognitive skills are what separate the good learners from the so-so learners. Without developing cognitive skills, children fall behind because they aren’t able to integrate new information as they are taught it. The sad truth is that most students move on to the next grade before they have mastered the basic academic skills like reading, writing and mathematics – because they haven’t developed cognitive skills.[6]


An important cognitive skill that a child must master is the ability to express him or herself using language. This means that they need to develop some form of symbolic representation. This is in part achieved by developing other skills such as drawing, dancing, modelling, using numbers and singing. Do not underestimate the power of imitation; children imitate others at an age as young as two years old. They also imitate their pets and, of course adults. Children learn from the example set by others, and bad behaviour, such as temper tantrums and aggressiveness are learned as easily as good behaviour such as sharing and honesty. This is why it is important to also pay attention to the environment in which children live and are brought up. Children who are exposed to crime, drug abuse, and violence (especially against children and women) are bound to accept this as “normal” so that they will imitate and adopt it as a way of life. Of course judgement develops gradually so that one should not expect a child of two to demonstrate the same measure of honesty as a child of, say twelve. At the age of two to seven children tend to be egocentric. This means that they can only experience the world through their own point of view – they cannot see things as others would and they believe that everybody shares their point of view (some adults never learn to think differently anyway).


Between the ages of 7 and 11 most children has developed the ability to think logically and in the abstract. They now understand that there are different kinds of animals, that his or her mother can be the mother of other children as well, that objects of different shapes can have the same mass, etc. They still cannot categorise, i.e. group certain types of animals together, group objects in certain sizes, etc. According to research, categorising is only learned at the ages of 7 to 12. At the age of 12 most children reach the formal operational stage, meaning that they develop the ability to think more abstractly. They can usually solve a problem that is not physically present, work out a hypothesis and test it out systematically. This has obvious implications regarding what children can be taught at school.  


In closing, the ability to learn and make sense of new information is crucial to successful learning, and that is why developing cognitive skills is so important. We need to keep in mind that the theories behind cognitive thinking are often based on research done with children from a specific cultural group, so that it does not necessarily apply to the children of other cultural groups. We need to do much more research on how and at what rate different children from different cultural backgrounds develop. This is a rather sensitive subject but critically important if we are to provide our children with the most efficient and effective education. This is also why it is important that small children receive at least their initial education in their mother language.


Learning is actually a rather complex process because many interrelated cognitive skills contribute to learning and applying what we have learned. There are seven critical learning areas on which teachers should focus if they are to utilise and develop the cognitive thinking skills of their learners:[7]

  1. Attention - the ability to stay on a task for long periods of time.
  2. Working memory – the ability to retain information for short periods of time while processing or using it.
  3. Processing speed – the rate at which the brain handles information.
  4. Long-term memory – the ability to store and recall information for later use.
  5. Visual processing – the ability to perceive, analyse, and think in visual images.
  6. Auditory processing – the ability to perceive, analyse, and conceptualize what is heard.
  7. Logic and reasoning – the abilities to reason, prioritize, and plan.

Dr Hannes Nel, MD Mentornet


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Thanks Hannes, excellent reminder of the principles. And so scary to see how important the language skills are in this picture!

As a psychologist I really enjoyed your well written article Hannes! I think one of the core needs in preparing our children for elementary school is pre-school stimulation. Many children are deprived of developing the various learning areas mentioned simply because they are not exposed to learning experiences that develop dendrite branching in the brain. The brain is neuroplastic, i.e. it is able to adapt and learn. If we use it, it will develop in that particular area of strengthening, but if we do not apply our minds, we literally lose neurons (brain cells) since they dystrophise and disappear. Personally I think education in our country will benefit greatly if children have access to pre-school development opportunities where they can be exposed to appropriate brain stimulation activities.  

Thanks for this. Always useful to be reminded.

Of course, as long as the seven learning areas at the end do not become sticks to beat the children (or adults) with. I would rather think of them as learning styles (or methods) than "areas". The latter suggests a teacher should focus on getting the child "up to speed' in each area. Rather, the teacher should try to understand how best each learner learns and use those strengths to help them learn, and to mitigate the weaknesses elsewhere. Difficult in large classes!

One could also add Tactual processing--most important for the majority of young children.


Dear Hannes - Thank you for your, as usual, excellent article.  One of the most exciting measures that SA is embarking upon, (as outlined in the HRD Strategy 2010 - 2030) is early childhood development. Surely this is going to give our future generations a far better start to life and sound cognitive skills. Maybe we will, oneday, produce a nation of innovators as a result of this measure.

Irene James



Thanks Hannes.As a person who speaks isiZulu,i have found that it is very difficult to study in english as i need to interprete the information in my own language before i can understand it in english.This happens when one is talking which results in a not so clear english.Also growing up i was never at school given skills to study and be able to understand the information given to me i.e tools like Whole brain learning and i think the majority of township students would have similar problems.I actually saw and witnessed this when i was facilitating a group of employees,this learning skills given to them was alien and thus could not associate this with their language which resulted in many failing.I am really not sure how the students (especially the township schools) can be given the skills to use when studying and interpret the information so that they can also increase pass rate.Perhaps the reseach must also be extended to students who do not speak english as their home language and we can see results.

The best way to help children to develop cognitive abilities if they're not given them in the school environment is through puzzles.  Things like: a maze with a mouse outside and cheese inside - help the mouse get to the cheese, or 4 boys and 4 kites with the lines mixed up - which boy is holding which kite, or find the 10 differences between "identical" pictures, connect the numbers and identify the animal, etc. etc.  There are loads of them - go and look in CNA, PNA, Paper Weight - and they don't need language.  But they all help to build cognitive ability.  Just don't let the child give up.  They must persevere to get the answers - and it really can be a LOT of fun.

Well described, Hannes. It reminds me of a School Principal's words: "Pupils inability to translate thoughts coherent, well-argued sentences, paragraphs and essays was severely impeding intellectual growth in many subjects. 




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