Cognitive Flexibility and Schema Theories: Analysis of Instructional Implications
by Chase Young
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As you read this discourse, please consider the most important ideas. This is a common directive from a classroom teacher’s repertoire of reading for meaning statements (Kucer, 2005). However, I suppose I should ask you, first, the purpose for your reading this discourse, and who you are. My professor will read to make sure my ideas are sound, well grounded in research, my elaboration remains in the confines of reasonable interpretation, and all of which portrayed in an eloquent manner. However, if you are a friend searching for syntactic errors at my request, or a teacher learning for an applicable means for instruction, the main ideas you note will differ because of your purpose (Anderson & Pearson, 1984) and stance (Rosenblatt, 1994).  In addition to purpose and stance, your schema will affect what is recalled, and what is deemed important (Anderson & Pearson, 1984). Furthermore, your cognitive flexibility in this ill-structure domain will create divergent applications of the information; therefore, contribute to your evaluation of this discourse (Spiro, Coulson, Feltovich, & Anderson, 1988). Regardless of who you are, my main purpose for this discourse is to determine the relationship, if any, between the Cognitive Flexibility Theory and the Schema Theory, and its implications for instruction. 

First, a review of the schema theory and its relative contribution to reading comprehension will be discussed. The schema, what a person already knows, helps readers better comprehend text. There are certain preconceived expectations that are later fulfilled while reading. Also, conceptual knowledge helps readers assign features in the text to corresponding “slots.”  Anderson and Pearson (1984) use a ship’s christening to illustrate this point. However, I had a severe gap in my schema about ship christening, in fact I had none at all; therefore, I will use a written review of the Superbowl instead. Many have schema for the Superbowl resulting in a set of expectations. A reader begins, and for example the text begins with “The Denver Broncos faced the Dallas Cowboys…” The Broncos and the Cowboys have now fit into the <team> slot. We expected this to happen, and upon reading our expectation was fulfilled. Next, we might expect to fill the slot <winner>. This is because our schema for the Superbowl includes the notion of a team beating the other. Now, this schema is particularly subject to assimilation and accommodation because each year the slots will be filled with different teams and winners. Just because the Broncos did not win another Superbowl, does not mean it is not still the Superbowl.  Regardless of the many Americans that have schema for the Superbowl, some do not. In these cases, readers may approach the text and not know the Superbowl is the football game that determines the winner of an NFL season. They would feel much like I did when reading about a ship christening, thus making the text more difficult to comprehend.

Implications for classroom practice resulting from the Schema Theory (Anderson & Pearson, 1984) include the necessity to engage readers in a wide variety of texts, and expose them to numerous experiences. Schema consists of experience and prior knowledge. Building upon these is advantageous to a reader. Here is an example of how I have incorporated schema into reading instruction.

This whole group lesson is geared towards second graders. The main idea of the lesson is to introduce text structure and their features. However, the structure of the lesson will effectively draw on prior knowledge and experiences utilized multiple senses while allowing students to monitor thinking and check for accuracy.  Throughout the lesson students are listening, speaking, reading, writing, viewing, and visually representing (Silver & Strong, 2000).

An anchor, as created by Miller (2002) should be used to introduce the bat unit—cleverly placed near Halloween. The anchor chart begins with the following sentence, “What do we already know about bats?” After having students write down they know about bats—each fact on one note card—they physically placed them into the schema file. The schema file is file folder attached to the chart paper below the first sentence. The habit of the mind covered is drawing on past knowledge and experiences (Costa & Kallick, 2000).

After drawing on previous knowledge of discussion is held about what we already know. The sentence below the file reads, “What is our new learning about bats? What will we add to our mental files?” At this time Zipping Zapping Zooming Bats by Anne Earl is read out loud stopping as students write down new learning on note cards. We also stop to notice every text feature of the book. After reading we tape the new learning below the second sentence (Miller, 2003).  Students, with the teacher as a guide, approach the text with an efferent (as opposed to aesthetic) stance (Rosenblatt, 1994).
Finally, we check for accuracy with the third sentence, “What were our misconceptions about bats? What will we delete from our mental files?” We read through our schema attaching what we already knew under the first sentence. Next, the new learning is attached. Finally, any common misconceptions such as “bats turn into Count Dracula” are placed under the last line where we can visually see it was a misconception. It is extremely important to instill a need for accuracy in student work (Costa & Kallick, 2000). Also, the revisions act as a means for assimilating or accommodating information (Anderson & Pearson, 1984). The anchor chart can be used in many ways, and for many lessons.

The next theory to be considered is the Cognitive Flexibility Theory (Spiro et al, 1988). It seems to be an extension of the schema theory, or even a reconciliation of misinterpreted research. At this point, I am unable to make a determination, only that the two are closely related; whether they are mutually exclusive or dependent on each other will depend on your interpretation of my interpretation.

They (Spiro et al, 1988) argue that in order to understand ill-structured domains, one cannot simply rely on intact schemata to demonstrate advanced knowledge. Moreover, they believe the next step from introductory knowledge should be advanced knowledge. In order to illustrate the demand for assembling multiple schemata, they coin the Cognitive Flexibility Theory (CFT). They believe that the knower should create interconnectedness among schemata to use in “cases of application.” The oversimplification and neglect of ill-structured domains leaves a learner hindered that only accesses prepackaged schema to understand complex topics.

In my humble opinion, it seems the CFT aims to expand on what is already known, therefore might be argued to be an extension of the Schema Theory. Introductory knowledge can be verbally bequeathed to a student, but advanced knowledge is acquired through application of various schemata to understand ill-structured domains. At this point, the student is in charge of the learning. Almost as if teachers do not provide a foundation, only the bricks (schema) for it. It is the task of the student to assemble the bricks to form necessary foundations for a particular leaning activity (cognitive flexibility). Of course, noting the flexibility in cognition, the bricks can be reorganized infinitely to create foundations for other ill-structured domains (Spiro et al, 1988).

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One way to accomplish this in a classroom is through the use of multiple text types. Approaching a concept or topic from many perspectives and through several means facilitates cognitive flexibility (Boyd & Ikpeze, 2007). Returning to the Superbowl example, I will discuss how one might better understand it through multiple text types. We have already used our schema on football and its championship game to understand the article on the Superbowl. Now, to fully understand takes many more experiences through various lenses. Imagine how much better you would understand the Superbowl if you completed these additional tasks. First, watching the Superbowl would probably be a big help before reading the review. Less obviously, but for a deeper understanding, you could read an interview with the coaches from the winning and losing teams. Additionally, watching a documentary on the teams’ seasons would help you understand the pathology of a Superbowl team. Read about the history of the Superbowl. Watch a YouTube video of a European college student perspective on American football. Analyze pros and cons of professional sports and their effects on society. Go outside, throw the football around and empathize with the difficulty aspects of the game and the talent it takes to be a professional. Review common injuries as a result of being a professional football player, and the toll it takes later in life. There are countless ways to build background knowledge on the Superbowl, and multiple text types shy away from a rigid or one-dimensional Superbowl schema. For a person to understand and apply advanced knowledge in this domain would require cognitive flexibility. However, will the simple introductory schema help understand the article reviewing the Superbowl? Yes, the Superbowl schema will help you understand the article (Anderson & Pearson, 1984). Yet, the same schema could not be used to find similarities between the Superbowl and Operation Iraqi Freedom. Could you make a comparison by using the CFT after exposure to multiple text types? Think about the strategies involved in both, the physical and mental tolls of Americans, the long history of the Middle East, and other schema that can be assembled to further understanding (Spiro et al, 1988).

In order to assemble schema, you have to have schema. This notion helps me, linearly, understand their relationship. However, is it more of a reciprocal relationship rather than linear? Value is being attributed to interconnectedness. Connecting schemata to engage in divergent tasks has no room for oversimplification. Therefore schema is assembled to acquire advanced knowledge and stored as such, yet the individual concrete schema is similarly decomposed, and stored for later use in the acquisition of advanced knowledge. So, maybe, the intent of the schema theory was misinterpreted or taken too literally. In fact, ironically, the schema theory has been stored as schema, and not been given the freedom of cognitive flexibility. I think we need to use the Schema Theory in the assembly of other schema to further understand the interconnectedness of the theories themselves.

Let us walk through a lesson I have used in my class. Actually, it is a smattering of skills and strategies given to students as tools for completing animal research. Although the instruction does incorporate a couple of text types, there is room for plenty more. In fact, there seems to be a large fallacy in the final product. First we decide what animal they would like to research. At this time, students gather books from the library and record information on their research graphic organizer. Students also consult the National Geographic Kids online. There are photos, videos, and facts, and students surf through while looking for the desired information. Once the organizer is complete, they transfer the information to the final draft, and low and behold a research paper is formed. We used books, videos, teacher conferences, hypertext, and photographs to enhance their learning. This is where I sit back with a pleased expression on my face. Now, however, I think of the concrete schema we stored, the lack of multiple perspectives, and the need for the incorporation of the CFT (Spiro et al, 1988).

I know, it seems like a nice little research project. I have used derivations of this project with second through fifth graders. Each of the grade levels were not afforded the room for cognitive flexibility (sadly, none were taken to the Zoo either). So, how can we rearrange this research framework to create an ill-structured domain that would demand usage of the CFT (Spiro et al, 1988). What if we asked the students, after their research, to determine how it would affect their animal if it were to be moved to a different continent? It would require the assembly of schema regarding their animal, the new habitat and deficiencies thereof, similarities of habitats, predicted reactions of natives based on previous experiences, and a projection of survival. All of which could be obtained through multiple text types (Boyd & Ipkeze, 2007).

There seems to be an infinite amount of ways one can turn structure into ill-structure. To me, outside of the theory jargon, it simply compels us to reflect on how much we require our students to think divergently. Schema can be built through a simple lesson. We can instill knowledge neatly into a preformed schema pocket. The pocket is valuable, and priceless when activated to understand text (Anderson & Pearson, 1984). However, the use of the schema assembly to acquire advanced knowledge, and the ability to use what you know to understand extremely complex issues is definitely the next step (Spiro et al, 1988). I believe that schema is advantageous when reading, and good readers activate, build, and revise their schema as they read. Approaching a text with a set of expectations greatly increases comprehension. I believe Spiro and his colleagues try to facilitate what is to be done with the incremental knowledge gained.  As an educator I will continue to utilize the schema theory and attempt to plan with cognitive flexibility in mind.

Let me complete this transaction by discussing, again, your purpose for reading. I am fairly confident all have selected the efferent stance; therefore I can safely ask for your aesthetic stance for the remainder of this discourse. If you happened upon this text by searching for Superbowl related discourse, you have selected the wrong reading; unfortunately, the Superbowl knowledge seeker probably will not ever read far enough to know I have acknowledge him. The professor in you is pondering whether or not I have successfully linked the two theories, analyzed the appropriate seminal works, and organized the text in a scholarly fashion (APA format, of course). Your teacher instinct probably indicated the applications or descriptions of lessons to be the most important parts. If you are my friend, who selflessly agreed to edit this critical essay, you are simply glad it is over and are pleased that I am aware that comma splices are taboo. Finally, the new doctoral students are taking note of which seminal articles are being analyzed, and find that the most important parts of the discourse are names and dates located within the confines of parentheses.

References

Anderson, R. C. & Pearson P. D. (1984). A schema-theoretic view of basic processes in reading comprehension. In P.D. Pearson, R. Barr, M. L. Kamil, & P. Mosenthal (Eds.), Handbook of reading research (pp. 225-253). New York: Longman.

Boyd, F., & Ikpeze, C. (2007, June 1). Navigating a Literacy Landscape: Teaching Conceptual Understanding with Multiple Text Types. Journal of Literacy Research, 39(2), 217-248.

Costa, A. L., & Kallick, B. (Eds.). (2000). Activating & engaging habits of mind. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Kucer, S. (2005). Dimensions of Literacy: A Conceptual Base for Teaching Reading and Writing in School Settings (2nd ed.). Mahwah, NJ. Lawrence Earlbaum Associates, Inc. 

Miller, D. (2002). Reading With Meaning: Teaching Comprehension in the Primary Grades. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.

Rosenblatt, L. M. (1994). The transactional theory of reading and writing. In Ruddell, R. B., Ruddell, M. R., & Singer, H. (Eds.). Theoretical models and processes of reading (pp. 1057-1092). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Silver, H. F., Strong, R. W., & Perini, M. J. (2000). So each may learn: Integrating learning styles and multiple intelligences. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Spiro, R. J., Coulson, R . L., Feltovich, P. J., & Anderson, D. (1988). Cognitive flexibility theory: Advanced knowledge acquisition in ill-structured domains. In V. Patel (ed.), Proceedings of the 10th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

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© 2011 Chase J. Young. All rights reserved.