Knowledge Area BEPs: Development Theory


Cognition refers to how people perceive, remember, think, speak, and solve problems (Feist & Rosenberg, 2009). Over time, the brain develops in its ability to collect, process, and relate information. Cognitive development is not fully understood, since investigating it involves not only the observation of how people learn but how the physical and chemical structure of the brain makes it possible to learn. Common to many authors’ thinking, though, is the idea that cognitive development is affected by a range of factors including biological age and physical status, psychological factors, and socio-cultural influences.

For the purpose of this water education resource we can say that as a person grows and ages, they are developing and refining skills such as observing, communicating, comparing, organizing, relating, inferring, and applying. These include learning and applying experimentation skills, and applying such thinking skills as synthesizing, analyzing, and generalizing (State of California, 1992). Anderson and Krathwohl (2001) interpret cognition processes for educators providing a detailed explanation for how to purposefully develop knowledge content and thinking skills. Their system outlines four types of knowledge: factual, conceptual, procedural, and metacognitive (knowledge of cognition as well as awareness and knowledge of one’s own cognition). Teaching cognition processes involves providing exercises that require: remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating. How each person applies skills in a particular situation is governed by the development of a variety of cognitive capacities, such as the brain’s “speed of processing”, and the effectiveness of the brain’s “executive function”, thought to be responsible for a person’s ability to set and pursue mental and behavioral goals until they are attained.

Depending on their age, young children are likely to be able to employ observation, communication, comparison, and organization skills, and can expand their capacity to apply these skills with support from educators. But how much a child can remember, how a child applies knowledge to any particular situation, and the child’s speed of processing information will vary from child to child. Skills required for applying, analyzing, and creating knowledge are considered to be “higher order” skills. Older children and adults have the capacity to develop these more complex thinking skills, but learning to use them usually requires opportunities to practice each skill.

As an example, a natural resource professional may be surprised when a land owner who values clean water puts no effort into managing his or her property to reduce pollution. There are many reasons why that might be the case, but one possibility is that when presented with a relevant body of information or evidence, the landowner is not able to mentally organize the new information in a way that would enable him or her to imagine a new behavior. For a person to develop new practices based solely on exposure to new information requires skills in making inferences and skills in knowledge application. Younger children are not likely to be developmentally ready for such a complex, analytical task. But older children are often mentally prepared (so to speak) and enjoy developing the learning skills required. Adults can enjoy learning and practicing these skills through a case study process, or other real life practicums. [NOTE: Social marketing and behavior change theories suggest communication strategies which may make it easier for landowners to see connections between actions and impacts.]


To improve success in any education initiative, educators design a learning opportunity based on the developmental stage of their students. Educators ask learners to use the cognitive skills that they already have, and facilitate the development of new thinking skills that learners may need to solve a problem or adapt to a new situation. In other words, educators set their expectations for student learning outcomes recognizing the learner’s existing as well as potential skills.

While young people are described as developing their capacity to learn in a relatively orderly and predictable way, adult development is affected by a myriad of life processes that enhance or detract from individual capacity. Merriam & Caffarella (1999) provide a thorough summary for how changes over time may affect an adult’s capacity to learn and apply new information or skills. Adult capacity to learn is affected by biological and psychological changes, but is also thought to be strongly influenced by the sociocultural environment.

Adult development parameters that affect cognition include:

  • Sight and hearing changes. For example, older people may need more light to see the same thing a younger person can easily see, and loss of sensitivity to certain sound frequencies may require a speaker to take more care to enunciate clearly and to reduce distraction from other sounds.
  • Impacts of injuries and health that result in restricted abilities.
  • Life events and transitions. Adults have different roles in society over time, such as a parent or caretaker. Adult thinking strategies and mental capacity are affected by life events, both expected and unexpected.
  • Influence of norms related to race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation.
  • Changes in an individual’s sense of identity and self-esteem over time.

Magnusson’s integrative model explains that “individuals do not develop in terms of single variables but as total integrated systems” (1995, as summarized in Merriam & Caffarella). Accepted models of teaching may not acknowledge how norms and other life factors may affect an adult’s mental processes such as the brain’s “executive” or “processing” faculties, for example, or an individual’s motivation to learn. Educators can foster learning that helps adults build meaning applicable to specific situations.

For additional information about applying development and learning theory, refer to other Knowledge Areas on this Web site: Environmental Education Principles, Learning Theory, and Youth Education Principles. Also see the Behavior Change Theories and Techniques factsheet for more background on foundations of behavior, available in a Workshop materials sample packet. Essential Best Education Practices to enhance individual learning and group learning, outlined on this Web site, can help guide education design.


Recommendations are drawn from these and other resources:

  • Anderson, L. & D. Krathwohl, eds. 2001. A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assessing: A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. Boston: Addison Wesley Longman, Inc.
  • Ausubel, D. 2000. The Acquisition and Retention of Knowledge: A Cognitive View. New York: Springer
  • California State Board of Education. 1992. Science Curriculum Framework developed under the direction of the California State Board of Education, Curriculum Development and Supplemental Materials Commission.
  • Demetriou, A., & Kazi, S. 2001. Unity and modularity in the mind and the self: Studies on the relationships between self-awareness, personality, and intellectual development from childhood to adolescence. London: Routledge.
  • Feist, G. & E. Rosenberg. 2009. Psychology: Making Connections. Accessed August 2012 at
  • Gardner, H. 1991. The unschooled mind: How children think and how schools should teach. New York: Basic Books.
  • Merriam, S. & R. Caffarella. 1999. Learning in Adulthood. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass