Information Processing Theory


Development of the socially situated individual

Principal Metaphors

With regard to assumptions and assertions about learning, Information Processing Theory is explicitly aligned with Cognitivism, and thus is developed around the following metaphors:
  • Knowledge is … information
  • Knowing is … using information
  • Learner is … an information processor
  • Learning is … inputting (and associated computer-based notions, such as processing, storing, and retrieving)
  • Teaching is … transmission (of information)




Information Processing Theory might be seen as a braid of three other theories. Firstly, its assumptions on the nature of cognition are explicitly aligned with theories clustered around Cognitivism. Secondly, with an interest in how the ability to process information changes as children grow, its focus derives from Developmental Discourses. Thirdly, it picks up the mechanistic, cause–effect sensibility articulated within Behaviorisms, although it rejects the constrained focus on observable phenomena. Consequently, the theory aims to offer an account of mental development in which information-processing notions are applied literally (i.e., the mind is asserted to be a computer) to interpret growth, maturation, and evolving abilities to make sense of the world. Subdiscourses include:
  • Bottom-Up Processing (Data-Driven Processing) – cognitive information processing associated with unfamiliar or highly complex data, where that data determine and trigger the appropriate processes (contrast: Top-Down Processing, see below)
  • Deep Processing (Semantic Encoding) (Fergus Craik & Robert Lockhart, 1970s) – cognitive information processing of an experience that focuses on meaningful aspects rather than perceptual qualities (contrast: Shallow Processing, see below)
  • Shallow Processing (Fergus Craik & Robert Lockhart, 1970s) – cognitive information processing of an experience that focuses on perceptual qualities rather than meaningful aspects (contrast: Deep Processing, see above)
  • Social Information Processing (Kenneth Dodge, 1990s) – the encoding and processing of information associated with social interactions
  • Top-Down Processing – cognitive information processing associated with areas of familiarity and competence, where the knower’s established knowledge influence the processes appropriate to the situation (contrast: Bottom-Up Processing, see above)


A common and condemning critique of Information Processing Theory is the apparent failure of many of its advocates to recognize that “mind as computer” is a metaphor. The lapse is reflected in all elements of the theory, including its quests to understand the mind’s machinery and its attention to mechanisms. Even as Information Processing Theory explicitly incorporates some specific principles of Cognitive Science (see below), it is done in a mechanistic, cause–effect frame and tends to offer scant new insight.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

Because the perspective is more a mash-up than an innovative contribution, it is difficult (and perhaps irresponsible) to point to seminal thinkers.

Status as a Theory of Learning

Information Processing Theory is a theory of learning.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Information Processing Theory is not, and is not purported to be, a theory of teaching, although some proponents claim utility with regard to applying insights (apparently through computer-based modeling) to systems beyond the individual, such as families, businesses, and classrooms.

Status as a Scientific Theory

Elements of Information Processing Theory have strong empirical bases, particularly those that are fitted to other Developmental Discourses. However, with its emphatic and uncritical (and apparently literal) reliance on “mind a computer,” Information Processing Theory exposes itself to the same criticisms as Cognitivism and most other Folk Theories. For example, although it meets the scientific criterion of being explicit on how learning is understood (i.e., in information-processing terms), it no way grapples with the mountains of evidence that perception cannot be reduced to inputting, thought is something different than digital processing, and brains have very little in common with digital computers.


  • Bottom-Up Processing (Data-Driven Processing)
  • Deep Processing (Semantic Encoding)
  • Shallow Processing
  • Social Information Processing
  • Top-Down Processing

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2021). “Information Processing Theory” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

⇦ Back to Map
⇦ Back to List