Cognitive Science and Teaching ESL

Cognitive Connections

Cognitive Science and Teaching ESL

From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Cognitive science is the interdisciplinary study of mind and intelligence, embracing philosophy, psychology, artificial intelligence, neuroscience, linguistics, and anthropology”.  That doesn’t narrow it down much.  I have a background in psychology and this class seems to build on prior learning and research.  The reality is we are learning about how we learn. 

Computers have been compared to human brains.  Computers can process millions of bits of information very quickly and perform tasks or answer questions.  Computers can even converse!  However, at this time, they are not able to feel emotion.  We’ve discovered emotion, or feelings, are necessary for true thinking.  “Feelings can be seen as responses to facts and sensations that exist beyond the tight horizon of awareness. They can also be thought of as messages from the unconscious, as conclusions it has reached after considering a wide range of information — they are the necessary foundation of thought”. (Lehrer, 2007).  Emotion is part of the human essence.  Some may call it the soul.

We’ve discussed Artificial Intelligence (AI) and I would argue feeling or experiencing emotion is not yet possible for AI.  Of course, Hollywood movies often have unlikely heroes with Artificial Intelligence and emotion.  Some examples are WALL-E, Johnny 5 (Short Circuit), C3PO (Star Wars), and Rosie the Maid (The Jetsons).  Even Data from Star Trek was able to implant an ‘emotion’ chip so he could have feelings too.

Johnny Five

William Rapaport (1996) asked if computers, while executing algorithms, are “simulating mental states … or exhibiting them.  Do such computers think”?  I have wondered if AI has a super-fast, condensed way of learning.  Deb Roy (2011) recorded his child learning to talk and points out that much of the learning is based on social interaction.

So the question is, how does this relate to teaching ESL to adults?  We need building blocks to help those students learn.  Those include logic, rules, and concepts.  Do they come in any particular order?

I lean more toward thinking the rules/logic/concepts is almost cyclical in nature.  But, I still think the rules are the beginnings with early learning.  Parents, and other caregivers, teach infants and children basic life lessons such as what constitutes acceptable behavior.  Young children’s concepts of life are so limited because they just don’t have experience yet.  It’s a different situation with adults who begin problem-solving with a concept and then choose, or adapt, rules and logic.  But, they had to have the rules there in the first place.

Rules are the guidelines for behavior.  They are learned and keep life from deteriorating into chaos.  Teaching ESL will include grammar rules such as “i before e, except after c” and “who/whom”.  Another example is when to use “bring or take”.  Many languages, other than English, do not differentiate between the two.  Dave’s ESL Café has some wonderful grammar lessons available at no cost. 

Logic is a name for the general family of formal proof systems with inference rules.  It’s reasonable and based on connections between facts and observations.  Going forward into a teaching position, logic should be helpful in getting students to make the connections between ideas and experiences in order to develop their language skills.  We want them to be able to use both inductive and deductive reasoning to develop concepts.

Concepts are the big picture ideas and are the representations of our mental images wherein groups of similar features are grouped together.  I have to reference New World Encyclopedia (2008) which defines it as “concepts are the categorization of objects, events, or people that share common properties. By using concepts, we are able to organize complex notions into simpler and therefore more easily usable forms”.  Teaching concepts to ESL learners may be more difficult than the rules and logic but may also be the basis for learning the rules and logic.

We know children and adults learn differently.  Therefore, it is logical that children and adults would solve problems in different ways.  Children have not yet developed critical thinking skills which are helpful in problem-solving.  They are, however, very creative and may think of solutions that would not occur to adults with their already established rules.  Jean Piaget (1952) believed children learn best through doing and actively exploring.  This may help them solve simple problems but not more complex issues.  Adult ESL learners have been compared to young learners who are just developing the schemata needed to assimilate and accommodate learning.  (McLeod, 2009).  An example of this is learning about food and having a restaurant experience.  This was part of my lesson plan in a previous blog post.

Next, we need to look at how adults learn.  Carl Rogers (1961) believed adult learners need their learning to be practical and applicable to their lives. Each adult brings individual experience to their learning and each learner may be in a different stage of life.  There are many psychological tests available to help us identify our individual preferences for how we learn.  I plan to teach ESL to adults.  Literature tells us most adults are visual learners.  However, there are different learning styles and educators must recognize this and be able to teach to all. 
Hey Teacher

McGinty says “Applying conceptual understanding from one setting to the next requires students to utilize the brain’s capacity to build new neural networks”. 


The different learning styles represent how we get information to the brain so it can process and we can learn.  An active learner will touch.  A visual learner will see.  A verbal learner will hear. “The brain has neurons organized by synaptic connections…” which form into patterns.  The sensory input patterns will translate to concepts, images, and analogies (Stanford, 2010).  “The human brain is an active processor of information.  Brain-based instruction recognizes the fact that learning develops with the increase of neural networks and creates experiences where students can make connections between new and prior learning” (McGinty, et al, 2013).

In conclusion, the cognitive science of learning and teaching is still in its early stages.  Research continues to find the best methods.  It is expected Artificial Intelligence will play a stronger role.  But, most importantly, we must continue to learn and grow our brains.



Dave’s ESL Café (n.d.) Grammar lesson plans. Retrieved from

Lehrer, J. (2007, April 29).  Hearts and minds.  Boston Globe.  Retrieved from

McGinty, J., Radin, J., & Kaminski, K. (2013). Brain-Friendly teaching supports learning transfer. New Directions For Adult & Continuing Education, (137), 49-59. doi:10.1002/ace.20044  

McLeod, S. A. (2009). Jean Piaget. Retrieved from

Rapaport, W.J. (2006, October 29). Cognitive science. Retrieved from

Rogers, C.R. (1961). On becoming a person. Boston: Houghton Mifflin

Roy, D. (2011, March). The birth of a word . Retrieved from

Jozwiak, T. (2009, June 3) . Johnny Five is Alive Retrieved from

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (2010). Cognitive Science. Retrieved from



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