college of education | spring 2002

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Pioneering a New Way of Learning in a Complex and Complicated World

Rand Spiro sees a messy complexity everywhere, in medicine, engineering—and teaching. That complexity is an inevitable part of advanced knowledge and a particularly thorny problem for teaching and learning.

Teaching that involves memorization and a superficial familiarity with general concepts is easy enough. But what about the learning that can’t prepare you for every contingency, that doesn’t lend itself to principles that can be applied in every instance?

It is in this domain of ill-structured complexity and advanced knowledge that Spiro has pioneered Cognitive Flexibility Theory, and along with his colleagues has sought to refashion teaching and learning for an ever-changing and complex world.

“Cognitive Flexibility Theory is about preparing people to select, adapt, and combine knowledge and experience in new ways to deal with situations that are different than the ones they have encountered before,” says Spiro, a professor of learning, technology and culture in the Department of Counseling, Educational Psychology and Special Education. “It is the flexible application of knowledge in new contexts that concerns me. There are always new contexts and you just can’t rely on old templates. Cognitive security is what people want. It doesn’t work in the modern world of work and life.”

With cognitive flexibility, Spiro makes the case for a different kind of instruction. Among the tenets of this new approach are that instruction needs to provide students multiple representations of content, should be case-based and emphasize knowledge construction (instead of transmission of information), and knowledge sources should be highly interconnected. Application of these principles will help people to use knowledge in new ways to suit the purposes of different situations.

His research has led him to conclude that some of the most complex and demanding domains of learning are not preparing students for this kind of learning and knowledge application. He has studied medical education, for instance, and found that doctors tend to put patients in “diagnostic boxes” and treat everyone who suffers from symptoms within that box in the same way. The reality is that treatment is complex and ill-structured. Everyone has different degrees of illness, tolerance for pain, etc. Moreover, different lifestyles and jobs may have an affect on the ideal treatment.

The tendency is to establish routines, Spiro says, “but when the world doesn’t follow a steady, predictable routine—that’s where we are not getting people ready.”

In domains such as history, where multiple perspectives and even competing contexts and facts are often present, cognitive flexibility can allow students to gain a deeper understanding, he said.

“In so many different places, we’re finding that the old linear, more mechanistic, single-perspective approaches don’t work,” he says. “You need interconnected knowledge and knowledge in context. You need to be able to apply multiple perspectives, multiple knowledge sources, multiple points of view, and that’s what we’ve tried to do.

“Luckily, we have this new medium, which is a flexible medium.”

What Spiro is referring to is hypermedia. It turns out that technology (the World Wide Web, CD-ROMs, digital video) is uniquely suited to this type of learning. Spiro and his colleagues have developed electronic learning environments that allow students to get away from the chapter-by-chapter approach, and use the new media to easily access different cases and gain multiple perspectives. “I’ve called it random access instruction. You can jump from here to there, and look at information in varying contexts of new or previous knowledge, thereby demonstrating the subtleties and nuances that experts appreciate. The goal is to accelerate the acquisition of experience so people are better prepared to apply their knowledge.”    

Spiro believes that cognitive flexibility must be nurtured early in the learning process. Learning shouldn’t begin with massive complexity because it leads to confusion that will overwhelm and discourage learners. But by starting small, students can avoid

Rand Spiro

oversimplification and learn the underlying habits of mind necessary to acquire complex knowledge. Each “mini-case” is a microcosm of the larger world of practice, with its complexities represented initially in cognitively manageable proportions.

Teaching is among the most complex of processes, Spiro says, and it lends itself to starting small. Showing students a minute-long digital video clip of a teacher teaching a lesson, for instance, allows them to focus on only two of three complex issues. They can then build up to longer clips as they learn new perspectives on teaching, knowing that they have a more secure foundation that includes ways of looking for and understanding complexity.

“As soon as you start thinking in terms of multiple perspectives, you’ve switched things around,” he says. “You are not looking for the single best answer, or the best way of looking at things. You realize that there is an interaction of factors, and you can learn about it in those introductory stages because it isn’t full-blown complexity.”

Spiro is clear that he is not calling for the dumping of all routines. There is nothing wrong with learning the multiplication tables. When the world is
predictable and determinate, then developing routines is a practical response.

The problem is that when teaching novices, the inclination is to oversimplify and take a linear approach. That tends to instill habits of mind, Spiro says, that are hard to break. The goal has to be to teach students how to crisscross material in different directions in order to help them build interconnected networks of knowledge. In that way, they will be able to apply knowledge in new contexts.

Over the years, institutions like the U.S. Departments of Education, the Department of Defense, and the National Science Foundation have supported his work. These days, he is spending more time on classroom teaching cases, and experimenting with the use of graphics and other techniques as aids in allowing students to gain even more perspectives when watching digital video cases. He is trying to open up perception, so future teachers can see more of the multiple agendas of teaching (and their interactive play) when they examine classroom situations.

He is also studying how digital video presentations can accelerate the learning process, so that professionals won’t require so many years of experience before developing a more knowing and comfortable expertise.

For Spiro, cognitive flexibility is a radical departure, but one that is needed more than ever. Organizations are moving away from rigid hierarchies. From the military to Fortune 500 companies, there is an increasing reliance on people at all levels to make decisions and adapt to changing situations.

 Ultimately, the goal isn’t to give people a prescription for how to think. The goal of cognitive flexibility, he says, is to give people the kind of knowledge they can make connections with and use as a tool for solving and dealing with new problems and situations.

“We don’t know what things are going to look like in 50 years. But there is a new kind of learning that I think is in the midst of being made possible by the new technologies. It is stuff you couldn’t do before with textbooks and lectures. Quite fortuitously, this new kind of learning is the kind we most need for this increasingly complex world. Finally, we have the media to make possible the kind of learning people have to have for this new century.”

Back to Contents | Faculty Profiles: 1, 2