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Tammy Clark
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Using Cognitive Flexibility Theory to Teach History

Unit #1

After reviewing information from Unit 1, you should be able to:

  • Identify CFT and ill-structured domains
  • Begin the process of building an online course with CFT
  • Indentify case-based learning

What is Cognitive Flexibility Theory?

Cognitive Flexibility Theory (CFT) was introduced by Rand Spiro around the mid-1980’s. It was formed in an effort to address issues of teaching and learning in ill-structured domains. These domains were resistant to traditional instructional practices that utilize pre-determined, already existing schema. Instead, new schemas are flexibly created while learning in ill-structured domains.

What does this mean? CFT is just another learning theory used to connect information for the learner. By studying domains case-by-case, the learner begins to see that there are not strict rules for each situation/case. However, knowledge of the domain itself is still created through newly formed schema. For instance: Diana (the learner) studies cases of child abuse. She begins to see that no two cases are alike, and no two situtations require the same response. However, they all exist in the same domain (child abuse). So, by studying 10 cases of child abuse, Diana begins to see themes. By the end of the lesson, she will be able to address each new unique case in the real world with an appropriate response, no matter its components. Without CFT, Diana may react to each unique case in the same manner, or become confused when situations or cases change.

Goals of CFT:
1) assist learning of important yet complex knowledge (ill-structured domains)
2) encourage formation of flexible knowledge that is adaptable in real-world situations
3) altering modes of thought
4) create instructional settings using hypertext (Spiro, 2003, p.4).

What is an ill-structured domain?

Ill-structured domains include any domain that does not adhere to strict rules or result in static, concrete answers. “As a result of the nature or problems within ill-structured domain (e.g., social studies, psychology, electronic mail), students tend to depend more on heuristics or rules of thumb to operate efficiently (Lawless & Kulikowich, 1993). To learn to operate efficiently in an ill-structured domain, case studies are often used. “Over the course of time, it is likely that the learner will be faced with many exceptions to these rules, forcing him/her to deal with multiple perspectives, points of view or underlying themes” (Auntie Emm, p. 247).

What does this mean? In basic terms, an ill-structured domain is any domain that is not simple or that does not have simple rules and answers. History is an ill-structured domain because what we know/say about history changes depending on who is writing the history when. Simple math like adding and subtracting is not ill-structured because there are concrete rules and answers. 2+2 always equals 4. However, once you get into higher mathematics, the domain becomes ill-structured.

Case-based learning

Spiro likened cased based and hypertext learning to a criss-crossing of the landscape (Spiro, 2003). In Diana's case, this criss-crossing occurs each time she studies a case from a different perspective, or with a different theme in mind. By studying different cases in the same domain, the learner is able to develop flexible knowledge about the domain as a whole, instead of gaining specific knowledge that does not transfer to new cases. Each of these cases is a new example or scenario in the same domain with similar themes. While no two cases are exactly the same, they do serve to foster a general, flexible knowledge of the domain itself.

In a hypermedia envrionment, each case (like the child abuse cases above) is linked to multiple other facets and cases in the learning environment, allowing students to direct their study non-linearly through the course.

Test Yourself

  • In 10 words or less each, define CFT, ill-structured domains, and case-based learning.

See possible answers

  • Write a list of themes and possible cases for your unit or course. Do they fit well? Is there a pattern?

Begin Unit 2