Cognitive Flexibility

Wendy Newstetter
Wendy Newstetter
Director of Learning Sciences Research

How would you define this big idea?

When I think of the intended goals or outcomes of the SLS program, the term cognitive flexibility comes to mind. First proposed by Spiro, Coulson, Feltovich, & Anderson (1988) to describe the conditions necessary to mastering complexity and transfering knowledge, it comprises seven themes: avoidance of oversimplification or regularization, multiple representations/schemas/ theoretical perspectives, centrality of cases, conceptual knowledge as knowledge-in-use, scheme assembly, multiple interconnectedness and significant scaffolding in active participation. Each of these themes has significant implications for the design of the SLS learning environment. Each could also be an intended learning outcome of the SLS program that could be observed and evaluated. Educational activities could target each of these in specific ways. In fact, they could become design principles for the two course sequence because it is questionable whether cognitive flexibility can take root with just one learning experience.

Why is this big idea important?

To some extent, cognitive flexibility is the Holy Grail when it comes to the desired out come of an effective learning experience. Cognitive flexibility allows for navigation and resolution in complex problem solving. It is the basis for many recent breakthroughs in science in which multiple representations, embracing of complexity and interconnectedness drove discovery. When tackling community-based problems with sustainability implications, cognitive flexibility is an imperative cognitive mindset students will need to practice and master.

Learn more:

Spiro, Rand J. "Cognitive Flexibility Theory: Advanced Knowledge Acquisition in Ill-Structured Domains. Technical Report No. 441." (1988).

Spiro, R. "Cognitive flexibility, constructivism and hypertext: Random acces instruction for advanced knowledge acquisition." P. Steffe e J. Gale (1995).