+ The Blank Stare: Developing Foundational Cognitive Structures

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Betty K. Garner writes in “Educational Leadership,” the Journal of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, that unresponsive students may need us to help them develop cognitive structures.  She says it’s never too late.

Garner describes three operative categories of cognitive structures:

  •  Comparative cognitive structures  help us process information; they identify how bits of information are alike and different; they include recognition, memorization, conservation of constancy, classification, spatial orientation, temporal orientation, and metaphorical thinking.
  • Symbolic representation structures  help us transform information into culturally acceptable coding systems such as verbal and nonverbal language, mathematics, music and rhythm, graphics, and other communication systems.
  • Logical reasoning structures  — such as deductive and inductive reasoning, analysis, systhesis and evaluation —  help us process information and make it possible for us to generate NEW information.

The article addresses the first of these categories: comparative cognitive structures.

These are so basic that we assume everyone has them.  But Garner’s case studies established that many middle and high school students had yet to develop cognitive structures:  they offered blank stares when asked to make “obvious” connections.

The cause of such a deficit might be within the child’s family: there is often little real communication between adults and children.  Another causative factor is excessive passive exposure to media.  For these and other reasons, children come to school without the necessary cognitive tools.

How are such capabilities developed? 

People develop cognitive structures through reflective awareness (becoming purposefully and reflectively aware of the information their senses take in), and visualization (mentally representing this information).

Students take in sensory information every waking minute and filter it through their values, beliefs and feelings.  Many of them don’t recognize what they are doing.  They receive all information as if ithey were seeing and hearing it for the first time each time.

When teachers encounter resistance to learning, they need to identify whether cognitive structures are lacking; if necessary, they should intervene to help students develop them.  Garner says some students need our help to become reflectively aware. 

We need to teach them first of all how to systematically collect sensory data. 


The ability to identify a match or fit between two or more pieces of information is one of the first cognitive structures to develop.  An infant recognizes his mother’s face: it is not those faces, it is HER face.

We often take recognition for granted, but it’s more sophisticated than we think and absolutely necessary for most professionals, including doctors or air traffic controllers.

Many children entering school perceive everything as “stuff.”  Begin to teach them to observe.

For example, a teacher writes four sentences on the board and asks, “What do you notice?”  These children have been helped to develop the ability to notice things, and so they say “Each sentence starts with a capital letter;” “The punctuation at the end of one is different because it’s a question;” “There is a pronoun in the second sentence.”

They have begun to be little detectives.  They are recognizing what they learned before and remembering it.  They are even beginning to create connections and make up rules in their minds.

Garner suggests that before beginning a lesson, a teacher place relevant materials or objects where students can see them, and ask “What do you see?  What do you notice?”  As students become reflectively aware of sensory data, the way is being paved for a closer fit when they encounter similar data again.


The ability to store information depends on other cognitive structures to classify information for access, contextualize it in time and space, label it, and identify specific logical or metaphorical connections, writes Garner.

Strengthen this ability: encourage students to reflect on how they make connections, identify patterns, formulate rules, and pull out abstract principles to create meaning.

Too often students confuse imitation with learning.  Imitation is a preliminary form of memorization in which they depend on short-term memory and then simply imitate what has been modeled.

A student might memorize a spelling word but not be able to define it, use it in his own writing, or recognize it when he’s reading.

He should be encouraged to visualize and illustrate the word’s meaning; he should try to classify relationships between his spelling words and other words.  This way, he’s actually using his memory to create meaning for himself.

“Conservation of Constancy”

This term refers to the ability to understand how some characteristics of a thing can change while others stay the same.  For example, to see what changes and what stays the same when a suffix or prefix is added to a word, or how 1/2 and 6/12 can be equal.

This is one of the most basic cognitive structures.  It is crucial for learning: assessments are based on the assumption that students can conserve constancy.   Students who lack this cognitive structure fail to benefit from their experiences. 

Because their perceptions are limited to concrete sensory data and literal interpretations, they force information into preconceived notions.  Without conservation of constancy it is difficult for students to think abstractly, plan, problem solve, discern relevance or transfer information from one situation to another. 

Teachers should frequently ask students to compare how things are alike and different, both at a physical and an abstract level. 

For example, one teacher assisting his students in drawing a scale map of Africa first gave them a map.  He asked them “What do you notice about this map of Africa?” 

It was big, they said, had lots of colors, the countries were different shapes.  Then  conversations began, about how the size of a country might affect its political power or its wealth; how languages might be different; how do they get along.

Instead of giving them a map on which to label the countries, he had them draw the map to scale, asking what would stay the same and what would change.  The size of things would change, they decided, but the shapes would stay the same, as would their relationship to longitude and latitude.


The ability to identify, compare and order information to create meaning on the basis of relationships enables students to process information so it is accessible to them.

To classify, students need to apply criteria for whether or not an object belongs to a set.  Students can begin to develop these skills by manipulating real objects.  Only after they understand the principle of membership in a set can they classify abstract information. 

Garner has students work in small groups with an assortment of 20 to 30 small objects (most of which they contribute from their desks or personal belongings).  She observes what the students do: some begin to  handle the objects, other just wait for instructions.

After a short time she asks “How would you make sense of this stuff?” and they usually look confused.  She encourages them to think about how they might be organized.  Gradually, they begin putting all the pencils in a pile, keys in another, and so on.

At this point, she explains that they have worted objects according to like kind, which is the most basic way of classifying them.  Then she tells them to think of 15 or so other ways to classify them.  They look at her with disbelief, she says, but gradually they begin listing the most obvious criteria first: materials, or color.  Then they think of country of origin, purpose, cost.  The class discusses how they use classification in everyday life, and then how those experiences would be different if no classification existed. 

In this way, without using preprinted graphic organizers or preset criteria, the students have discovered patterns based on their own criteria.  They have not been deprived of the opportunity to develop their own cognitive structures.  

Garner feels that problems with the classification structure are the reason many students seem to make little progress with content (e.g. punctuation rules), even though they encounter it in worksheets to be filled out year after year.

Spatial Orientation

The ability to identify relationships among objects and places has far-reaching implications for learning and life.  Students who are disorganized, confuse right and left or cardinal directions, or form letters backwards problably need help with this cognitive structure.

There are three kinds of space we must commonly deal with: physical space, representational space, and abstract space.

Physical space involves 3-dimensional objects and their relationship to us and to one another: students with difficulty judging spatial relationships in the physical world usually have difficulty  grasping more abstact spatial relationships. 

Representational space uses two-dimensional symbols and graphics to identify relationships: writing uses directional lines to form letters and numbers; math uses representational space in geopmetry, number systems and  statistics; PE offers representations of plays on a field; spatial elements are integral to design in art.

Abstract space uses mental images to represent spatial relationships: mentally mapping a trip; visualizing molecular structure and planetary orbits; boundaries and topography in social studies.

Awareness of spatial relationships can be strengthened by naming specific locations when giving directions (“put the book on the lower left shelf”), or asking students to note the location of something before they talk about it  (“in the middle left of the picture I noticed a green tree; the tree is smaller than the one on the right and they both have shadows under them”). 

In this way students become more reflectively aware of what their senses are telling them — and are also developing language skills.

Temporal Orientation

The ability to process information by comparing events in relationship to when they  occur involves more than just telling time.  It is essential for planning, organizing, communicating and record keeping, as well as understanding most content areas.

When we tell children to “think before you act,” we assume, says Garner, that they have temporal orientation.  This cognitive structure helps students control impulses by inserting time for reflection between stimulus and response.

Students without temporal orientation are often confused when presented with an unfamiliar task.  They don’t know where to start because they can’t plan ahead or systematically sequence their actions.  Teachers can help at many points think actively about what’s happening now,  what has happened before, and what will happen in the future.  Every class will offer opportunities to stop and notice the implications of time on the subject or object at hand.

Metaphorical thinking

This truly means emphasizing similarities — while overlooking differences between things. 

It is a form of comparative thinking, and equips students to generate fresh insights through making unusual connections.  Many creative student will express their understanding as a metaphor.

Language is peppered with metaphors.  Your students will delight in finding them and discussing the appopriateness of the imagery they contain.  Let young writers come up with their own, which may be more effective than some famous writer’s choice.  And in science and math, metaphors can make all the difference in grasping a new fact or situation.

Garner writes that although it seems most efficient simply to cover material in order to pass tests, it may be truly more efficient to equip students for ongoing learning by using the everyday curriculum to fortify cognitive structures. 

“Investing teaching energy in cognitive structures helps students learn how to learn.”

Quick Tips

  • Build caring relationships with students.  Struggling learners will work with you if they trust you and know you care.  Spend time with them and listen to them.
  • Encourage students to be reflectively aware.  Prompt them to notice what their senses are telling them.  Encourage them to suspend judgement and give themselves time to process information.
  • Urge students to use their imaginations.  When students can see (or hear, feel, taste or smell) information in their minds, they can carry it with them when the information is out of sensory range.
  • Maximize each lesson.  Analyze content, activities, and assessments to identify which cognitive tools the lesson draws on and how the undertaking might develop cognitive structures.
  • Use open ended prompts, such as “What questions come to mind as you think about this?’ — “What kind of pattern do you notice?” —  “What do you wish were easier?  Why?” (encourage elaboration without giving verbal or nonverbal cues as to which responses might be correct) — “What do you wonder about?” — “How is this like life?” —  “How would you explain this to someone?” 

source: article by Betty K Garner in “Educational Leadership,” the journal of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, March 2008 issue. www.ascd.org

tutoring in Columbus OH:   Adrienne Edwards   614-579-6021   or email  aedwardstutor@columbus.rr.com


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