Tools to Advance Cognitive Development

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  • 0:04 What is a Cognitive Tool?
  • 1:44 Technical vs.…
  • 2:36 Early Cognitive Tools
  • 3:42 Use of Cognitive Tools
  • 5:22 Cognitive Tool Use in…
  • 6:16 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Melissa Hurst

Melissa has a Masters in Education and a PhD in Educational Psychology. She has worked as an instructional designer at UVA SOM.

The word 'tool' has a connotation of something that aids us. Normally, we think of tools being something manipulated with our hands to help us build. In this lesson, we will learn about tools designed to promote cognitive development.

What is a Cognitive Tool?

Examples of cognitive tools used for effective learning
Examples of cognitive tools

When you hear the word tool, what do you think of? Most of us think of hammers, screwdrivers or saws. This lesson, however, will focus on cognitive tools. You have been introduced to and used cognitive tools throughout your education. Do you remember the mathematical order of operations by the phrase 'Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally?' What about 'Every Good Boy Does Fine'… does that ring any musical bells? These are examples of cognitive tools used to promote cognitive development.

Through tool use, humans have transformed nature, and the particular social organizations that result from tool use determine human life. The invention of agricultural tools and the discovery of electricity are examples of how technical tools have changed the lives of humans.

Cognitive tools may be manipulated like technical tools we often think about but are unique in that they can be concepts, symbols, strategies or any other culture-based mechanism that helps learners think and act more effectively. Some examples of these cognitive tools include mnemonic devices, algebraic symbols and works of art.

The famous psychologist Lev Vygotsky bridged the gap between tool use and cognitive development with his designation of cultural symbols as psychological tools. Included are language, numerical systems, mathematical symbols, maps, diagrams and so on.

Technical vs. Psychological Tools

Vygotsky showed the link between tool use and cognitive development
Lev Vygotsky Tool Use

Both the tools of work (technical tools) and psychological tools assist the individual in completing a task. Technical tools (such as hammers, nails and saws) are directed outward; they change an external situation. In contrast, psychological tools are directed inward; they direct the mind and change the process of thinking. Specifically, these tools allow learners to use basic mental functions (such as attention, perception, sensation and memory) more effectively and adaptively. Language and other psychological tools are artificial devices for mastering one's own mental processes; they are social in nature, meaning they are representative of the culture and society of the learner, and they're also the product of historical development.

Early Cognitive Tools

The process of using cognitive tools began with memory. At some point in human development, primitive humans began to master and control their memory through artificial symbols that they created. An often-used example is the so-called messenger's wand found in Australia. They were large sticks of rectangular wooden slabs marked by a series of notches that the messengers used to deliver communications to distant tribes. However, the notches were not just arbitrary symbols. Instead, they represented certain persons and objects in addition to numbers and locations. With the aid of this simple device, the messenger reconstructed the message at the time of delivery.

The events associated with the use of these wands are that new connections are established in the brain through the act of perceiving the external reminders and returning to the ideas they represent, and the construction of the process of memorizing is accomplished by internally forcing an external object to remind the individual of something.

Use of Cognitive Tools

A primitive tool used to communicate messages and memories
Australian Messengers Wand

Vygotsky indicated that a cognitive tool must meet the following criteria: first, it's any sign or symbol that is used to master one's thinking. Second, it's transmitted through culture and interaction with a more capable other. And third, the tool must be essential to the development of higher psychological functions, including categorical perception, logical memory (memory based on connections and relations among concepts) and voluntary attention.

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