The idea of a cognitive tool or ‘mind tool’ was popularized in the 1990s by David Jonassen. It explains that not all educational technologies are beneficial for learning. According to this concept, only educational technologies that help us learn more deeply than before are beneficial.
We usually think of an educational technology as a cognitive tool if it supports higher-order cognition. It is contrasted to an educational technology that does not do anything to support higher-order cognition.
For example, a calculator might take the full cognitive load of a multiplication task from a student, thereby not supporting cognition but rather making us ‘think less’. By contrast, a spreadsheet or mind map may be a tool that helps us think more deeply about a topic. It will help us sort and organize our thoughts so that we can develop theories and deeper understandings of the topic under analysis.
Jonassen developed the theory of cognitive tools based on the constructivist theory of learning. A constructivist believes that we learn by constructing new knowledge by mulling it over in our minds. If an educational technology helps us in that task, it has merit in the classroom.
The major contemporary criticism of the cognitive tools concept is that it doesn’t pay attention to the role of emotions and motivations in learning. Perhaps technologies are used to motivate and engage students – which no doubt helps learning – rather than simply to enhance cognition.
Jonassen, D. H. (1992). What are cognitive tools?. In Cognitive tools for learning (pp. 1-6). Berlin: Springer.
Lajoie, S. P., & Derry, S. J. (Eds.). (2013). Computers as cognitive tools. London: Routledge.