Cognitive Flexibility Theory by R. Spiro

Cognitive Flexibility Theory

R. Eichele IM504-July, 2014
Learners can accommodate radically different situations by restructuring previous knowledge through multiple representations and/or scaffolding. In short, when faced with a new situation a person has two choices: adapt what s/he knows to deal with that situation or to shutdown/freeze.

Why use it:
People are faced with new situations. We can’t be prepared for everything, but we can use everything we know to adapt to new unique situations. As teachers, we can help students be prepared for new situations by focusing on knowledge construction instead of transmission, providing multiple representations of concepts, using case studies and highly interconnected knowledge sources, and avoiding oversimplifying information.

Application Examples:
This class is an example. We have little to no experience as instructional designers, so we use what we know from our educational experiences, as well as case studies from class and the textbook, to construct the knowledge we need to design an instructional plan to help Tk20 be successfully implemented.
Tk20 is another example. SCSU students will be faced with learning a new system. They will draw on their knowledge of other online systems to help them learn this system. If we use multiple examples and scaffold what they know, they will be empowered to successfully utilize Tk20.

Nickel, C. (2014). Rand Spiro-cognitive flexibility theory. Unpublished paper, Department of Educational Psychology, Michigan State University, Michigan. Retrieved from

Spiro, R.J., Feltovich, P.J., Jacobson, M.J., & Coulson, R.L. (1992). Cognitive flexibility, constructivism, and hypertext: Random access instruction for advanced knowledge acquisition in ill-structured domains. In T. M. Duffy & D. H. Jonassen (Eds.), Constructivism and the technology of instruction: A conversation (pp. 57-75). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Spiro, R.J. & Jehng, J. (1990). Cognitive flexibility and hypertext: Theory and technology for the non-linear and multidimensional traversal of complex subject matter. D. Nix & R. Spiro (eds.), Cognition, Education, and Multimedia. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.