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Educational Briefings: Technology 2001
Rand Spiro Taps Technology for New Learning

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

Teaching that involves rote memorization and 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 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 allowing people to select, adapt, and combine knowledge and experience in new ways to deals with situations that are different than the ones they have encountered before," says Spiro, a professor in the Department of Counseling, Educational Psychology and Special Education.

"It is the flexible, adaptive application of knowledge in new contexts. There are always new contexts and you just can't rely on old templates. But relying on those old models are what people will want to do if allowed. Cognitive security is what people want. That approach just isn't working anymore."

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. It turns out that new technologies, notably hypermedia and digital video, are uniquely suited for this type of learning.

Spiro and his colleagues are developing digital learning environments that allow students - from the most advanced to undergraduates -- to get away from the linear, chapter-by-chapter approach, and use the new media to easily access different cases, gain multiple perspectives and understand the complexities involved.

Daniel Chazan
Rand Spiro

"I've called it random access instruction. You can jump from here to there, and look at this case or information in the context of new or previous knowledge." For Spiro, cognitive flexibility is a radical departure in that the goal is not to give people a prescription for how to think.

The goal is to give people knowledge with which to think in dealing with new problems and situations. Technology, he is convinced, will play important role in achieving that goal.

"We don't know what society is 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 the kind of learning you couldn't do before with textbooks and lectures.

Quite fortuitously, this new kind of learning is just the kind that 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."


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