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, 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 (For a broader definition of the notion, see Discourses on Learning Collectives.)
  • 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, above)
Varieties of Information Processing Theory often part company on the type of computer processing that is the best analogy to human cognition. At present, most perspectives assume or assert:
  • Parallel Distributed Processing – a cognitive information processing model that is based on the metaphors of Distributed Processing and Parallel Processing (see below). That is, human cognition is hypothesized to involve richly connected, highly interactive, and functionally distinct neural units operating in parallel.
Other types include:
  • Central Processing – a type of information processing in which all computations are handled by a single processor. The notion has been used, somewhat problematically, as an analogy for the human brain since the 1950s. (Companion notion: Serial Processing. Contrast: Distributed Processing)
  • Distributed Processing – a type of information processing in which multiple processors are simultaneously doing computations of different aspects of the same task. (Companion notion: Parallel Processing. Contrast: Central Processing)
  • Parallel Processing (Simultaneous Processing) – a type of information processing in which two or more sequences of operations (that are not necessarily on the same or related tasks) are processed simultaneously. The construct is often used as an analogy to the human ability to manage multiple complex activities at the same time (e.g., chatting while cycling). (Contrast: Serial Processing)
  • Serial Processing (Intermittent Processing; Sequential Processing) – a type of information processing in which only one sequence of processing occurs. (Contrast: Parallel Processing.) Discourses on learning that assume Serial Processing include:
    • Single-Channel Model – a perspective on cognitive information processing that asserts that humans are capable of only Serial Processing. That is, cognition involves only one source of information and one processing channel at a time.


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)
  • Central Processing
  • Deep Processing (Semantic Encoding)
  • Distributed Processing
  • Parallel Distributed Processing
  • Parallel Processing (Simultaneous Processing)
  • Serial Processing (Intermittent Processing; Sequential Processing)
  • Shallow Processing
  • Single-Channel Model
  • Social Information Processing
  • Top-Down Processing

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2023). “Information Processing Theory” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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