Cognitive Biology


Learning as a biological function

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … scope of systemic possibility
  • Knowing is … living; adequate biological functioning
  • Learner is … any living system
  • Learning is … adapting; elaborating (current scope of functioning)
  • Teaching is … N/A




Within Cognitive Biology, learning and thought are regarded as biological functions. Concisely, a living system’s cognition comprises every act of sensing environmental cues and responding accordingly. In other words, bacteria, plants, animals, and all other living organisms are continuously cognizing. Thus, learning and cognition are not higher-order mental phenomena; rather, they exist on a continuum of physical-chemical-electrical processes. That is, learning is an adaptive dynamic, often coordinated with other agents, that hopefully contributes maintaining the organism’s viability.


As might be anticipated, most commentary on and criticism of Cognitive Biology have two intertwining foci: (1) entrenched conceptual boundaries between human and non-human, and (2) entrenched brain-based conceptions of learning and cognition. Regarding the former, many find themselves unable to replace deep-set assumptions rooted in Newtonian dynamics (see Correspondence Discourses) with alternatives based on Darwinian dynamics (see Coherence Discourses). Regarding the latter, some cannot imagine learning without a receptacle (e.g., mind, brain, nervous system) to contain the learnings – that is, criticisms tend to invoke indefensible Folk Theories.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

Brian C. Goodwin Ladislav Kováč

Status as a Theory of Learning

Cognitive Biology is a theory of learning – and one that is proving a useful device for compelling commentators to reveal their deep-seated (usually dualism-based) assumptions and beliefs about learning.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Cognitive Biology is not a theory of teaching, although it does compel a rethinking of the still-dominant models of and assumptions about teaching that are rooted in Correspondence Discourses.

Status as a Scientific Theory

Cognitive Biology is a scientific theory – in part because proponents (unlike many detractors) are explicit about assumptions, metaphors, and definitions surrounding learning and cognition. As well, Cognitive Biology has a substantial and rapidly growing evidence base.

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2020). “Cognitive Biology” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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