Cognitive flexibility theory

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  • “Spiro, et al. (1992) offer a constructivist theory of learning and instruction that emphasizes the need to treat complex, ill-structured knowledge domains differently from simple, well-structured domains. Examples of ill-structured domains such as history, medicine, law, literary interpretation, and teacher education are prime targets for flexible instruction, in part because learners must apply what they have learned to novel and unique situations.” (quoted from Boger-Mehall)
  • “Cognitive flexibility theory suggests that learners grasp the nature of complexity more readily by being presented with multiple representations of the same information in different contexts. By seeing multiple representations of the same phenomenon learners develop the mental scaffolding necessary for considering novel applications within the knowledge domain. [.... ] Cognitive flexibility hypertext fosters the development of knowledge-transfer skills by confronting the learner with multiple representations of case-events. Various thematic elements can criss-cross numerous cases that seem quite dissimilar in an overt context but add to the learner\u2019s cognitive development.” (Graddy retrieved 19:20, 16 June 2006 (MEST))

Cognitive Flexibility theory and education

According to Godshalk et al (2004: 510), Cognitive Flexibility Theory “maintains that instruction in complex, ill-structured domains must allow the learner to "crisscross" the domain knowledge by comparing and contrasting information gained from different perspectives and themes pertinent to the domain. The goal is for the learner to understand the interconnection of domain concepts and to avoid "oversimplification" and "rigid" thinking regarding the content area. In other words, learners must be flexible in their understanding of a topic to apply important concepts.”

According to Spiro (1992): Any effective approach to instruction must simultaneously consider several highly intertwined topics, such as:

  • the constructive nature of understanding;
  • the complex and ill-structured features of many, if not most, knowledge domains;
  • patterns of learning failure;
  • a theory of learning that addresses known patterns of learning failure.

Cognitive Flexibility Theory and Educational Technology

  • One answer is Hypertext, because "The remedy for learning deficiencies related to domain complexity and irregularity requires the inculcation of learning processes that afford greater cognitive flexibility: this includes the ability to represent knowledge from different conceptual and case perspectives and then, when the knowledge must later be used, the ability to construct from those different conceptual and case representations a knowledge ensemble tailored to the needs of the understanding or problem-solving situation at hand." (Spiro 1992)
  • Further down Spiro (1992) argue that "The computer is ideally suited, by virtue of the flexibility it can provide, for fostering cognitive flexibility. In particular, multidimensional and nonlinear hypertext systems, if appropriately designed to take into account all of the considerations discussed above, have the power to convey ill-structured aspects of knowledge domains and to promote features of cognitive flexibility in ways that traditional learning environments (textbooks, lectures, computer-based drill) could not (although such traditional media can be very successful in other contexts or for other purposes). We refer to the principled use of flexible features inherent in computers to produce nonlinear learning environments as Random Access Instruction (Spiro & Jehng, 1990)."
  • “In summary: Ill-structured aspects of knowledge pose problems for advanced knowledge acquisition that are remedied by the principles of Cognitive Flexibility Theory. This cognitive theory of learning is systematically applied to an instructional theory, Random Access Instruction, which in turn guides the design of nonlinear computer learning environments we refer to as Cognitive flexibility hypertexts.” (Spiro, 1992)

Therefore: see Cognitive flexibility hypertexts but also case-based learning.



Godshalk, Veronica M., Douglas M. Harvey, Leslie Moller (2004). The Role of Learning Tasks on Attitude Change Using Cognitive Flexibility Hypertext Systems, Journal of the Learning Sciences, 13 (4) 507-526. LEA restricted access

  • Spiro, R. J. & Jehng, J. C. (1990). Cognitive flexibility and hypertext: Theory and technology for the nonlinear and multidimensional traversal of complex subject matter. In D. Nix & R. Spiro (Eds.), Cognition, education, and multimedia: Exploring ideas in high technology (pp. 163-205). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • 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. M. Duffy & D. H. Jonassen (Eds.), Constructivism and the technology of instruction: A conversation (pp. 57-76). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawerence Erlbaum Associates. HTML reprint
  • Spiro, R. J., Feltovich, P. J., Jacobson, M. J., & Coulson, R. L. (1991). Knowledge representation, content specification, and the development of skill in situation-specific knowledge assembly: Some constructvist issues as they relate to cognitive flexibility theory and hypertext. Educational Technology,31 (9), 22-25.