Sunday, December 17, 2006

Cognitive Barrier Theory – A Brief Overview

Piagetian Cognitive Analysis[i] largely focuses on the various stages that a child passes through in developing an intellectual platform for knowledge acquisition. Its vision is linear and incremental with a directive favoring an idealized outcome. In Cognitive Barrier Theory (aka CBT) I look at Piagetian Development on a micro-level with an emphasis on the self-imposed barriers that I suspect delay the rate of progression of the regular learning process. My theory is based on an adopted version of a mini-grief cycle model and borrows freely from the arguments of Lev Vygotsky[ii] and Jerome Bruner[iii]. Its scope of functionality is broad and I envision the theory having applications beyond the pedagogic realm into the mechanism driving the moral and emotional development of the adolescent.

The Kübler -Ross Grief Cycle (KRGC)

In her 1969 book On Death and Dying[iv], Swiss Psychologist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross outlined the differential stages of the Grief Cycle that now bares her name. According to Kübler-Ross, after hearing bad news a person’s emotional state cycles through seven different stages viz. Shock, Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Testing and Acceptance. At first, in shock the person is paralyzed by hearing the bad news. Denial sets in as one tries to avoid an inevitable, but this eventually spills over into anger caused by frustration. Bargaining is then sought as a way of escaping the problem but this too fails, leading to the eventual realization of being trapped in the new fate, a state that can lead to depression. Positive progress can only occur with the testing of realistic solutions and an acceptance of a new status quo. However the transitioning between stages can be complex and it is possible that movement from one stage to another may be significantly delayed or even worse, a person may be forced into a seemingly endless recycling of the seven stages with no hope of escape from the looping process. If psychological help is not sought the long term prognosis for the sufferer can become serious.

What Constitutes Bad News?

The key trigger for the KRGC is bad news - a vague term but certainly one that can be deconstructed. I see bad news as a negative shattering of normality that forces one to rethink and adjust one’s framework of comfort in a non-desirable manner. Clearly the extent of such a shattering can be extreme such as the death of a spouse or child, a context from which the initial ideas leading to the KRGC were developed. However bad news is a relativistic concept that is best understood through the eyes of a recipient. A consequence of which is the possible extension of the KRGC into a broader realm. In formatting CBT I have extended the grief cycle to the ‘shattering’ that occurs when paradigms of knowledge comfort are destroyed.

An Explanation of the Mechanism behind CBT

Take a simple paradigm shattering phenomenon – in science/math there are many of them – for convenience I will choose the concepts of integers that nullified the earlier idea of positive-only numbers that one learns in grade school. Integers represent a critical change in our thinking of the world of mathematics but without their presence any real future progress in algebra, trigonometry and vectors would be stifled. So we are forced in a sense to conform to their existence. For many this is not a serious hurdle but for others this is clearly not the case.
Adapting our brains to work through such a radical shift involves the unbundling of old ideas, the possible loss of a comfort region and a feeling of a new and often undesirable beginning. The brain can choose to resist (or cope) by jump starting a mini-version of the KRGC in an attempt to maintain the status (a type of intellectual ‘flight’ or ‘fright’ response). I have seen aspects of this in students that I have taught especially when the concept under review appears to be ‘overwhelming’ in level of difficulty. Some students break the cycle quickly others don’t. If a student falls into the latter category, this can become problematic especially if the looping is not terminated prior to the introduction of yet another new concept. What then may occur is the buildup of loops of irresolution that overlay one another creating a sense of powerlessness and eventually lowered self-esteem. In concept rich courses such as Math this may provide for the mechanistic pathology behind the condition of mathematics phobia[v] - a hypothesis worth investigating further.

Breaking the Loop and Overcoming the Mini-Grief Cycle Inspired Cognitive Barrier

The informed teacher or tutor is best equipped to assist the student in overcoming the cognitive barrier. However since the barrier is to a large extent self-imposed the student needs to possess the will to snap the cycle. In severe cases, which can evolve if a situation is left to continuously worsen, an educational psychologist may be required to facilitate the process as well. Vygotskian pedagogy, that uses a process of scaffolding[vi] to close zones of proximal development, may be useful but in a sense it too has to be modified and perhaps customized as the cycles of irresolution that are setup in the students mind may possess a unique physiology.
A flexibility of approach that speaks to the multiple intelligences[vii] may be utilized but what is perhaps just as important is the emotional energy and support that the teacher is capable of supplying. One may be tempted to see this as an exaggeration of a circumstance, but once cognitive barriers have created emotional walls the task of re-adjustment can be very difficult and requiring of a more holistic approach.

What other aspects of personal development may be influenced by the CBT?

It is impossible in personal development to take the finest scalpel and separate one factor from all the others. Cognitive, emotional and moral progression are linked in a way that social scientists are only just beginning to understand. Consequently, if cognitive barriers are set up it is natural to expect an overflow into other realms. A falling self esteem arising from a feeling of being inadequate is an obvious outcrop but I believe that cognitive barriers may skew or alter moral development as well. A sophisticated moral outlook can often (but not always) be cultivated by broadening one’s perspective, questioning assumptions and understanding the need for an extended sense of self. This is or should be an underlying principle behind most pedagogy but such a platform may be compromised in an individual if cognitive barriers have frozen intellectual development into an immature framework that blocks such critical abstraction.

Additional Factors to consider

The mini-grief cycle approach to cognitive barriers rests within the psychopathology of the Transactional Model[viii]. It is very much environmentally dependent and must be viewed as such. It also takes on more of a discontinuous[ix] approach to cognitive development which is an inherent simplification that later versions may address. A further avenue of research that flows naturally from the theory is a possible investigation of the sensitive or critical period[x] nature of unresolved mini-grief cycles.


The CBT provides a possible model for understanding how students, through an emotion driven process, build and augment hurdles toward learning. The process is worsened by an aggregation of mini-grief cycles of irresolution that can impact both the emotional and intellectual development of the learner. Fortunately early pedagogic assessment and an active teacher response are potentially available as stop gaps to prevent such situations from spiraling out of control.

[i] Piaget, J. (1972). Intellectual evolution from adolescence to adulthood. Human Development, 15, 1-12.
[ii] Vygotsky, L.S. (1962). Thought and Language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
[iii] Bruner, J. (1983) Child's Talk: Learning to Use Language, New York: Norton.
[iv] Kübler -Ross, E .(1969) - Collier Books, New York, NY.
[v] For more on mathematics phobia go to
[vi] Mok W.Y. and DiGiuseppe M (2006) CMYR Course Notes, MST Program, York University.
[vii] Gardner, H. (1993). Multiple intelligences. New York: Basic Books.
[viii] Ennis, L (2006) Adolescence Course Notes, MST Program., York University.
[ix] Ennis, L (2006) Adolescence Course Notes, MST Program., York University.
[x] Ennis, L (2006) Adolescence Course Notes, MST Program., York University.
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