Cognitive flexibility Theory !

Piaget's Cognitive Development theory

Information Processing theory

Cognitive Flexibility theory

Connectionist theory


Cognitive Flexibility theory

Rand Spiro's Cognitive Flexibility (CF) theory proposes that learning is an adaptive response to changing situational demands, the spontaneous restructuring of knowledge to accommodate different environmental contexts. Focusing on the transfer of knowledge beyond the initial learning situation, CF theory emphasizes the presentation of information from multiple perspectives and use of many case studies that present diverse examples.

CF theory extends significantly the work of earlier cognitivists, especially Allen Paivio and his theory of Dual Coding, which stated that human memory was highly representational and utilized two discrete units for encoding information--imagens for visual information, and logogens for verbal information. The primary conclusion of Paivio's work is that content representated in both verbal and visual form is retained better than single forms alone; thus, instruction should be designed accordingly.

Richard Mayer has incorporated a similar notion, the Dual-Channel assumption, into his cognitive theory of multimedia learning, which emphasizes not only the utilization of verbal and visual sensory modalities, but also the careful selection and organization of multimedia content. Similar to Paivio's notion of referential processing, Mayer theorizes that similar content across different media can reinforce initial encoding. Coordinating semantically and sequentially appropriate graphic images to their text counterparts, for example, produces better retention.

Cognitive Flexibility theory also draws heavily from Howard Gardner's theory of Multiple Intelligences, which suggests that there are many distinct forms of intelligence that each learner possesses in varying degrees--linguistic, musical, logical-mathematical, spatial, body-kinesthetic, intrapersonal, and interpersonal. Gardner lists three principles as practical implications of his theory: (1) Individuals should be encouraged to use their preferred intelligences in learning, (2) instructional activities should appeal to different forms of intelligence, and (3) assessment of learning should measure multiple forms of intelligence.

Theory into practice..

Spiro defended his CF theory as follows:

"It is the flexible, adaptive application of knowledge in new contexts. There are always new contexts and you just can't rely on old templates. But relying on those old models are what people will want to do if allowed. Cognitive security is what people want. That approach just isn't working anymore."

1) Given the above, how would Spiro explain a faculty member reluctant to transfer his or her instructional content from overhead transparencies to Powerpoint slides?

Spiro is also a major proponent of case-based learning, and argues that the new digital learning environments allow students to transcend the linearity that plagues traditional sequential models of instruction:

"I've called it random access instruction. You can jump from here to there, and look at this case or information in the context of new or previous knowledge."

2) What would Spiro say about Gagne's Nine Instructional Events?

3) What are the design implications for digital learning environments--say an instructional web site for a distance learning class?


Coastal Carolina University
College of Education
Educational Technology Program
Copyright 2004