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Introduction to Cognitive Flexibility Theory

Introduction to Cognitive Flexibility Theory

Author: Jody Waltman

In this lesson, you will learn about the cognitive flexibility theory and what it looks like in the classroom.

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This tutorial will introduce you to the theory of cognitive flexibility. We'll begin with the definition of cognitive flexibility theory, and then a list of its key elements. We'll identify some of the benefits of cognitive flexibility and compare this theory to traditional learning. Finally, we'll discuss some best practices and tips. Let's get started.

What is cognitive flexibility theory? It's the theory that humans are flexible learners. We can adapt to a wide variety of learning situations. We have the ability to adjust our thinking so that we are better able to understand and operate within varied learning settings and situations.

Spiro and Jehng explained that cognitive flexibility means that students have the ability to restructure their knowledge as a response to the cognitive demands of various learning situations. Let's identify the key elements of cognitive flexibility theory. The whole theory is built on the idea that learning can be generalized from the original situation or context to new situations and contexts.

For this reason, it's important that we as instructors present information to students in a variety of different ways, and from as many different perspectives as possible. Students' learning tends to be specific to the context in which it occurred, so our specific context based instruction should be carefully designed as we guide students through the process of applying that information in those new situations and contexts. Along the way, students must take ownership of that knowledge.

Cognitive flexibility theory is closely related to the constructivist theory. And as students are constructing or expanding their knowledge, they must be encouraged to make that new information their own. Cognitive flexibility theory has some research benefits. A particular focus is on the cognitive structures, especially the executive functions in the brain.

These executive functions are the cognitive processes that help students to connect past learning and experiences with present learning situations. We as teachers have the opportunity to impact this process. As we help students to develop these cognitive structures, we're also helping them enhance their organization skills and their ability to retrieve knowledge quickly and easily.

So how is cognitive flexibility theory different from more traditional learning models? First, content should be presented in a variety of ways in cognitive flexibility theory. In contrast, most traditional learning models emphasize a single representation of the content.

In cognitive flexibility theory, the complex nature of learning is embraced. Students are encouraged to work through content in context, while in more traditional learning models there's a tendency to oversimplify the information. The teacher breaks down the content into smaller chunks and then helps students put those chunks together at the end.

A case study format is encouraged for learning experiences in cognitive flexibility theory. Again, information is presented within this context so that students are assisted in constructing their understanding of the new material. In contrast, in traditional learning methods, information is often presented in isolation, without a context given.

While traditional learning models are often best suited for teaching more simple skills that are arranged in a linear fashion, cognitive flexibility theory can be a great fit when you're teaching concepts that are more complex and that would benefit from being presented in context. If you're thinking about incorporating some elements of cognitive flexibility theory into your classroom, here are some best practices and tips.

The case study format that is encouraged in cognitive flexibility theory often works well with collaborative groups of students. They can work together to navigate these learning experiences. Students should be provided with a problem or situation that they need to address, and they should be provided with a clear motivation to find the solution. As they work towards the solution, they should be encouraged to generalize and apply their knowledge. This helps them construct the understanding that is crucial.

In this tutorial, we defined cognitive flexibility theory and identified its key elements. We discussed some of the benefits of cognitive flexibility theory, and we compared it to more traditional learning methods. We saw that while traditional learning methods can be great for simpler skills that are organized in a linear fashion, cognitive flexibility theory can be a really great fit for more complex tasks that are well suited for a case study style format. Finally, we explored some best practices and tips that can help you implement cognitive flexibility theory into your classroom.

Now it's your turn to stop and reflect. Did the key elements of cognitive flexibility theory resonate with you? Can you see yourself presenting information for your students in context and asking them to work collaboratively to find the solution to a problem? To dive a little deeper and learn how to apply this information, be sure to check out the additional resources section associated with this video.

This is where you'll find links targeted toward helping you discover more ways to apply this course material. Thanks for joining me today. Have a great day.

Notes on "Introduction to Cognitive Flexibility Theory"

(00:00 - 00:25) Introduction

(00:26 - 00:56) Definition

(00:57 - 01:53) Key Elements

(01:54 - 02:29) Benefits

(02:30 - 03:47) Cognitive Flexibility vs Traditional Learning 

(03:48 - 04:26) Best Practices and Tips

(04:27 - 05:01) Review

(05:02 - 05:35) Stop and Reflect

Additional Resources

Cognitive Flexibility Theory and the Post-Gutenberg Mind: Rand Spiro's Home Page

This web page includes research, reflections, and videos on cognitive flexibility theory. Rand Spiro posts research, his latest thinking, and questions for educators to consider relative to the application of cognitive flexibility in the classroom.

Cognitive Flexibility, Constructivism, and Hypertext: Random Access Instruction for Advanced Knowledge Acquisition in Ill-Structured Domains

This is a seminal article on understanding cognitive flexibility theory. Click on the link to download.

Developing a growth mindset

In this blog, the author reviews the premise of Carol Dweck's growth mindset. Additionally, the author provides how-to strategies for teachers to build a growth mindset with their students. There are helpful infographics to illustrate the concept.