Cognitive Flexibility and Hypertext: Theory and Technology (Spiro & Jehng)

*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. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

The authors discuss the necessary application of cognitive flexibility theory when promoting knowledge acquisition and application in ill-structured domains. The complexity of such domain are best addressed through nonlinear learning aids, such as random access media. The Cognitive Flexibility Hypertext approach applies tenets of CFT in a computer learning environment. A hypertext program called KANE is used throughout to illustrate important principles.

The authors limit their discussion to situations of advanced knowledge acquisition in a content area, what they refer to as “ill-structured domains.” Hallmarks of such domains include (p.168):

  • non-uniformity of explanation across range of phenomena to be covered
  • non-linearity of explanation
  • non-additivity following decomposition
  • context-dependency
  • irregularity of overlap patterns across cases (reducing effectiveness of prototypes and simple analogies)
  • absence of wide scope defining features for category application

Learning of complex content material in ill-structured domains:

  • Requires multiple representations (e.g., multiple explanations, analogies, and dimensions of analysis)
  • Mental representations must be open
  • Nonlinear instructional sequences need to be followed
  • Irregularity and heterogeneity must be acknowledged

Cognitive flexibility: being able to restructure one’s knowledge spontaneously, in many ways and in an adaptive fashion. Function of the way knowledge is represented (along multiple rather than single conceptual dimensions) and the process that operate on those mental representations (schema assembly rather than retrieval) (p.165-6).

“Learning that has these characteristics of openness and plurality produces cognitive flexibility: the ability to adaptively re-assemble diverse elements of knowledge to fit the particular needs of a given understanding or problem-solving situation” (p.169).

CFT leads to a reconceptualization of instructional incrementalism (p.185). “…instruction starts with complex treatments but situates them in cognitively manageable mini-cases…So the student learns from the outset that the cases they will have to apply their knowledge to are complex (in that they require that multiple aspects of their knowledge representations be simultaneously and interactively superimposed) and they receive an easily graspable set of lessons about how some specific conceptual themes get instantiated in a particular context” (p.185). Use of mini-cases helps to avoid any reductive bias (p.187).

“Theories of cognition and instruction too often focus either on introductory learning or advanced learning in well-structured domains…many of the strategies of learning and instruction that are most successful in introductory learning (e.g., the use of analogy) form impediments to the eventual development of more sophisticated understandings” (p.169).

The central metaphor of CFT is the “criss-crossed landscape,” originally from Wittengenstein’s Philosophical investigations (1953).  “One learns by criss-crossing conceptual landscapes; instruction involves the provision of learning materials that channel multidimensional landscape explorations under the active initiative of the learner (as well as providing expert guidance and commentary to help the learner to derive maximum benefit from his or her explorations); and knowledge representations reflect the criss-crossing that occurred during learning” (p.170).

[The authors claim that “highly connected, web-like knowledge structures” are built via this process. I’m curious to know how this was determined…]

“Because one cannot have a prepackaged knowledge structure for every situation that might be encountered, the emphasis must shift from intact shcema retrieval to flexibility of situation-specific schema assembly” (p.170-1). Random access instruction (via hypertext program for instance) is an ideal medium for criss-crossing ill-structured domains.

Knowledge transfer is facilitated by having a large number of wide-scope interpretive schemas available, allowing students to access them flexibly.

Hypertext learning environments have tended to be designed without any theoretical basis. Instead, driven by technology capabilities rather than reflection upon which stages and purposes of learning this technology may best be suited; nor with any understanding of the cognitive psychology of nonlinear learning (p.166-7).

Hypertext systems are best suited for:

  • Advanced learning
  • Transfer/application learning
  • Complex and ill-structured domains

KANE uses mini-case scenes/cases:

  • Permit rapid studies
  • allow for interplay of multiple themes
  • each scene “unit” coded with a vector specifying which theme and symbolic perspective has a relevant role in a given scene

[The example scene text felt somewhat didactic to me; glad to know that the program allows students to add themes they identify as important and relevant.]

The authors admit that mini-cases are no substitute for actual experience in general, though mini-cases are helpful in conveying “the criss-crossed, multidimensional representation of the structure of case-based knowledge” because:

  • the conceptual structure is highlighted for the case, rather than having to be inferred
  • optional expert guidance is available
  • one is not dependent on serendipitous occurrences of instructionally useful cases in fortuitous sequences

Cognitive Flexibility Hypertexts

  • consolidate the process of experience acquisition
  • mini-cases allow one to see examples of rich case analysis and complex thematic analysis
  • concepts are embedded in “practice”
  • more cases can be covered via mini-cases; allows for cognitive manageability of the complex case instruction required for ill-structured domains
  • prevents overreliance on prototype cases
  • allows for easier situation-dependent knowledge assembly. Large number of mini-cases permits a greater range of potential precedent-case assemblies
  • increases power and efficiency of the program
  • easier to link mini-cases than “nonadditive” cases
  • by helping the student fully cover each case by pluralistically covering it, transfer is fostered in several ways:
    • student learns how to fully interpret cases, facilitating full interpretation of new cases in the future
    • multiple coding of cases provides more access routes for their later retrieval from memory (when needed in face of new cases)
    • the interaction of conceptual perspectives is illustrated
    • allows for more flexibility in tailoring for schema assembly
  • use of repetition is non-replicative. Repeated presentations aim to point out for students how the same case information can take on importantly different shades of meaning at different times and how each case has many facets.
  • this approach is intended to “effect an integration of conceptual and situational learning, in which each is appropriately thought about in terms of the other” (p.192). Concepts and cases are both essential. Conceptual knowledge must be taught in the contexts of actual cases of its application (not in the abstract)


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  1. […] General consensus among cognitive scientists that representations are internal mental constructs (ex: Spiro & Jehng’s cognitive flexibility theory) […]

  2. […] the likelihood that they will value new perspectives (p.122). The lesson also seems to draw from cognitive flexibility theory, since the class is expected to share the multiple (and varied) understandings and perspectives […]



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