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Cognitive Flexibility Theory (Spiro, Feltovitch & Coulson)

 

Cognitive flexibility theory focuses on the nature of learning in complex and ill-structured domains. Spiro & Jehng (1990, p. 165) state: "By cognitive flexibility, we mean the ability to spontaneously restructure one's knowledge, in many ways, in adaptive response to radically changing situational demands...This is a function of both the way knowledge is represented (e.g., along multiple rather single conceptual dimensions) and the processes that operate on those mental representations (e.g., processes of schema assembly rather than intact schema retrieval)."

The theory is largely concerned with transfer of knowledge and skills beyond their initial learning situation. For this reason, emphasis is placed upon the presentation of information from multiple perspectives and use of many case studies that present diverse examples. The theory also asserts that effective learning is context-dependent, so instruction needs to be very specific. In addition, the theory stresses the importance of constructed knowledge; learners must be given an opportunity to develop their own representations of information in order to properly learn.

Cognitive flexibility theory builds upon other constructivist theories (e.g., constructivist, subsumption, genetic epistemology) and is related to the work of symbol systems in terms of media and learning interaction.

Application

Cognitive flexibility theory is especially formulated to support the use of interactive technology (e.g., videodisc, hypertext). Its primary applications have been literary comprehension, history, biology and medicine.

Example

Jonassen, Ambruso & Olesen (1992) describe an application of cognitive flexibility theory to the design of a hypertext program on transfusion medicine. The program provides a number of different clinical cases which students must diagnose and treat using various sources of information available (including advice from experts). The learning environment presents multiple perspectives on the content, is complex and ill-defined, and emphasizes the construction of knowledge by the learner.

Principles

  1. Learning activities must provide multiple representations of content.
  2. Instructional materials should avoid oversimplifying the content domain and support context-dependent knowledge.
  3. Instruction should be case-based and emphasize knowledge construction, not transmission of information.
  4. Knowledge sources should be highly interconnected rather than compartmentalized.

References

Jonassen, D., Ambruso, D . & Olesen, J. (1992). Designing hypertext on transfusion medicine using cognitive flexibility theory. Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia, 1(3), 309-322.

Spiro, R.J., Coulson, R.L., Feltovich, P.J., & Anderson, D. (1988). Cognitive flexibility theory: Advanced knowledge acquisition in ill-structured domains. In V. Patel (ed.), Proceedings of the 10th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Spiro, R.J., Feltovich, P.J., Jacobson, M.J., & Coulson, R.L. (1992). Cognitive flexibility, constructivism and hypertext: Random access instruction for advanced knowledge acquisition in ill-structured domains. In T. Duffy & D. Jonassen (Eds.), Constructivism and the Technology of Instruction. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Spiro, R.J. & Jehng, J. (1990). Cognitive flexibility and hypertext: Theory and technology for the non-linear and multidimensional traversal of complex subject matter. D. Nix & R. Spiro (eds.), Cognition, Education, and Multimedia. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Relevant Web Sites:

For more on this work, see:
http://www.cogflextheory.org

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