Narrated ‘Aisha (the mother of the faithful believers):

The commencement of the Divine Inspiration to Allah’s Apostle was in the form of good dreams which came true like bright day light, and then the love of seclusion was bestowed upon him. …

Truth descended upon him while he was in the cave of Hira. The angel came to him and asked him to read. The Prophet replied, “I do not know how to read. The Prophet added, “The angel caught me (forcefully) and pressed me so hard that I could not bear it any more. He then released me and again asked me to read and I replied, ‘I do not know how to read.’ Thereupon he caught me again and pressed me a second time till I could not bear it any more. He then released me and again asked me to read but again I replied, ‘I do not know how to read (or what shall I read)?’ Thereupon he caught me for the third time and pressed me, and then released me and said:

‘Read in the name of your Lord, who has created (all that exists); Has created man from a clot; Read! And your Lord is the Most Generous; Who has taught (the writing) by the pen; Has taught man that which he knew not.’ [Al Quran :: Surah Al Alaq :: Verses 1 to 5 – the first revelation to the Prophet, PBUH]

–          Excerpt from Sahih Bukhari, Volume 1, Book 1, Hadith 3


Contrary to popular belief, cognition and the ability to learn is a gift of God. That explains why some learners are astutely intelligent while some are generatively retarded [with all due politeness]. It is important for us to differentiate between learning and cognition, since a lot of times we tend to divert ourselves to cognition while it would suffice to get enthralled with simple learning. Organizations at times spend a lot on learning and development [the contemporary nomenclature to the apathetic term training and development]. It would; therefore, be of paramount importance for us to ascertain whether the requirement is simplistic learning or cognition before we define the learning objectives of any learning module.

The preceding excerpt from an authentic Hadith [for those of you who might not be aware of this term, a Hadith, closest English translation being tradition, represents the words and actions of the Prophet Muhammad, PBUH] shows that the Prophet did not know how to read; he was illiterate, but was not ignorant. What made the Prophet, PBUH; distinct in this aspect was his cognition. In other words, despite his inability to read/write, the Prophet, PBUH; had an immense cognition to learn. That was a gift from God, to the Prophet, PBUH.

I did not chose Prophet Muhammad, PBUH; as an example simply out of emotion or religious fervor. What compelled me to exemplify him is the fact that he created an evident and ever becoming history that encapsulates not just spiritual but social, political, economic, scientific, intellectual, and cognitive excellence, all in one. I presume I would not need to prove what I intend to say with respect to the cognitive ability and agility of the Prophet, PBUH; since history accords ample evidences to testify the same. History would also testify to the cognitive ability and agility of many others, such as Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Isaac Newton, Nelson Mandela, and so on. However, the choice of Prophet Muhammad, PBUH; is imminent, since his cognitive influence traverses beyond a single domain of expertise, much unlike Einstein or Edison, or Mandela! My choice reverberates with Michael Hart, who says in his book, The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History, that Prophet Muhammad, PBUH; was “supremely successful” in both the religious and secular realms.


Differentiating Cognition and Learning


Cognition is beyond simple learning; it is the ability to ingrain the learning. The dog in the famous experiment of Pavlov definitely lacked this ability [with all due respect to Pavlov!], because the learning was never ingrained. That is, Pavlov’s dog demonstrated extinction, which spells the temporary end of the learning process for the dog. Pavlov’s dog could not reach cognition because cognition idealistically starts where learning ends; if at all it ends! Now, that doesn’t mean I intend to undermine either Pavlov or the entire school of Behaviorism. What I intend to state is that learning, as defined by Behaviorism, would act as the prerequisite to develop and build the cognition.

To exemplify the same, imagine a pilot being trained to react in a specific emergency – let’s say when the aircraft is going to crash land. The contemporary learning methodology in this case would seek to refer to the flight manual and perform the actions as specified therein. However, there might be a situation where the pilot does not have enough time to scan the lofty and bulky flight manual and perform accordingly. No flight manual would tell a pilot what to do when the pilot is about to crash land and s/he does not have enough time to scan the flight manual! This is precisely because the writer[s] of the flight manual would never know how to define this “enough time” as a parameter, in this scenario. What the pilot would do in such a situation would actually be driven by her/his cognition. The pilot builds up this cognition with prior knowledge and experience, very much the constructivist way! However, still no two pilots would always be able to react appropriately and adequately in one similar condition that requires cognitive reaction – something like what I have exemplified earlier; even if both the pilots have the same amount of prior knowledge and experience… What would prevent them from doing so is their cognition.


Relationship between Cognition and Learning

Consequently, the cognition of learning cannot be attained; it may only be enriched and reinforced. Cognition, unlike learning, is a direct product of our schema, which is created even before a human is born. To that effect, Albert Einstein might have been one of the persons with immense amount of cognition; even though he claimed to have used only 2% of his brain!! Learning may be acquired at any level [Bloom’s levels of learning in the Cognitive Domain]; however, if the level of cognition is insufficient, learning would not translate into cognitive excellence. What is first required is to analyze and ascertain the role of significance attached to cognition before we seek to define the level of learning as per Bloom’s Taxonomy. Figure 1 demonstrates the relationship between the role of significance of cognition and the levels of learning in the Cognitive Domain:

Figure 1: Relationship between Cognition and Levels of Learning

 Figure 1 tries to capture the relationship of the role of significance of cognition with different levels of learning in the Cognitive Domain. As evident from the figure, cognition plays a significant role in the learning process at every level; however, the significance is most high at learning levels beyond the Application level. A majority of learning modules that we develop today stop at the Application level, which is true for complex learning curriculum such as pilot training modules as well. Although I am not an expert in creating pilot training modules, I would say that most of the modules do not frantically dare to go beyond the Application level. The acute dependence on the flight manual in cases of emergency is one such example to prove the same. I might not be saying anything new; however, what I intend to deduce is to ensure a proper check with respect to the role of cognition in achieving the learning objectives; or cognitive excellence, whichever the case may be.


Cognition and Beyond…


Since we have come to appreciate the difference between cognition and learning [maybe sparsely as of now], we would also do good to differentiate between achieving learning objectives and cognitive excellence. Benjamin Bloom has made it eruditely easy for us to assess the achievement of learning objectives; however, the same does not stand true with respect to assessing cognition. Assessment of cognition is very human dependent; at least as of now. I view this as a potent and prolific field of future research in the field of Instructional Design.

If we are to lead and succeed with respect to our roles as learning managers, we must acquire the skills to assess cognition, as well as its role of significance in achieving the learning objectives that we set. This would make it easier to ensure that we have the right set of prerequisites before we even think of defining the learning objectives.

As an underpass, cognition plays an important role in the following facets of learning and content solutions:

  • Designing the entry and exit profiles of learners
  • Defining learning objectives
  • Hiring resources


Designing Entry and Exit Profiles


When we design the entry and exit profiles of the learners, cognition must be an important parameter. The challenge; however, is in how we ascertain the required level of cognition. Unlike the other parameters that we specify in the entry and exit profiles, cognition as a parameter might not always be specific or measureable. More research would be required to identify the elements of learning that would help us measure the cognition. Even more challenging would be the fact that cognition keeps on getting enriched with the expanding schema.

Therefore, by all probable means, when we infuse the level of cognition while designing the entry and exit profiles of learners, we have to analyze and account for a lot of parameters. I intend to present a sample Cognition Reconciliation Sheet for this purpose in a later post.


Defining Learning Objectives


When we go on to define the learning objective, we must do so while considering the element of cognition required to achieve the specific objective. This might mean defying some of the rules of creating learning objectives that we might have learned over the years. However, Instructional Design is one domain, similar to software development, which requires you to learn, unlearn, and relearn; and always be an agent of change. When considering the element of cognition, the learning objectives might not remain absolutely specific and measureable at all times; they may remain so partially.

I suggest defining the learning objectives in two parts; the first part taking care of the targeted Bloom’s level of learning and the second part encapsulating the required cognition enrichment to be achieved. The second part would evidently become nonspecific and subjective in that respect; and the assessment for the same would be equally idiosyncratic. This is where cognition would eminently get its due in the learning process!!


Hiring Resources


A lot has already been written about hiring winners; and I am not an expert in recruitments either. However, a diminutive point that I wish to make here is that measuring cognition would again play an important role with respect to hiring resources. Every new hire needs to be trained, and the training cost varies inversely with the level of cognition of the new hire. That would be ample enough reason for us to consider cognition as an important parameter while hiring resources! A word of caution – the parameter of cognition would be most applicable while hiring resources that are expected to demonstrate cognitive excellence. For example, mechanical jobs require least amount of cognition; therefore, cognition as a hiring parameter might be quite irrelevant therein. Nevertheless, hiring winners and leaders even in a mechanical process would require the role of cognition, unless we are not committed to continuous improvement; that is!!