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COGNITIVE FLEXIBILITY THEORY IMPLICATIONS FOR TEACHING AND TEACHER EDUCATION
University of Colorado at Denver
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In her article entitled “Cognitive Flexibility Theory Implications for Teaching and Teacher Education,” Boger-Mehall points out the importance of Cognitive Flexibility Theory. She describes how ill-structured aspects of knowledge pose problems for advanced knowledge acquisition that are remedied by the principles of Cognitive Flexibility Theory. This cognitive theory of learning is systematically applied to an instructional theory called Random Access Instruction, which in turn guides the design of nonlinear computer learning environments we refer to as Cognitive Flexibility Hypertexts. (Spiro, et al., 1).
A linear model type of instruction becomes ineffective when the subject matter that students need to focus on is not simple and well-structured, states Boger-Mehall. She goes on to affirm that “according to Cognitive Flexibility Theory, linear models using formats such as books, tutorials and other techniques of learning will fail because they are too complex and not easy.”( Spiro, et al., p. 57). The author further states that in
cognitive flexibility theory the main focus of professional education is for students to transfer what they have learned from previous situations and apply these concepts to other situations.
The flexibility that a computer provides makes it an ideal learning tool in lessons
crafted using cognitive flexibility theory. These principles work well, for example, when
they are used with a hypertext system, a nonlinear method that provides students with
options when it comes to complex subjects, something a linear model type lacks.
Learning theories shape how teachers design educational environments for their
students. For example, the constructivism method in learning theories encourages lessons
that allows students to relate new information to prior knowledge, recognize the complexity of concepts, and create new knowledge structures. However, content is often presented in a relatively simplistic manner and the depth of knowledge inherent in the intended learning objectives is not recognized or understood by students. Cognitive flexibility learning theory, which can build on constructivism and work done in media and learning interaction, can assist teachers in structuring activities that avoid oversimplification of complex concepts (Spiro & Jehng, 10).
Cognitive flexibility is a learning theory that “focuses on the nature of learning in complex and ill-structured domains” (Kearsley, p. 1) and separates itself from
many theories because it deals with the acquisition of advanced knowledge. Spiro and Jehng (10) add that
By cognitive flexibility we mean the ability to spontaneously restructure
one’s knowledge, in many ways, in adaptive response to radically changing situational demands. This is a function of both the way knowledge is represented (e.g., along multiple rather than conceptual dimensions) and the processes that operate on those mental representations (e.g., processes of schema assembly rather than intact schemas retrieval). (p.165)
In an effort to apply cognitive flexibility theory toward teacher education, Boger-Mehall stresses a work done by Stephens in15. “The reading-writing workshop,” as it
has been called, is a mix of Spiro’s theory and a video-based learning environment
to help teachers in their approach to literacy instruction. The result of Stephens’s work
was the production of a laser disc that provided access to information randomly and the possibilities between people to engage in live interactions. Cognitive Flexibility
Hypertext, as the result, was built by Stephens. Teachers can use it to make knowledge transferable.
Boger-Mehall’s position is reinforced when it comes to the assumptions behind the cognitive flexibility theory. This theory does not need to be utilized in well-structured domains. It will be best used in areas such as the sciences where students are required to do some research, transfer their results and apply them to specific situations.
Boger, Mehall. S. (001). Cognitive flexibility theory Implications for teaching and
teacher education (University of Houston’s Instructional Technology Research).
Retrieved April16, from http//www.kdassem.dk/didaktik/14-16htm
Kearsley, G. (000). Cognitive flexibility theory. [Online]. Teaching and learning in
cyberspace. [Online version]. Journal of Bibliographic Research, 14, 11-14.
Spiro, R.J., Feltovich, P.J., Jacobson, M.J., & Coulson, R.L. (1). 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-
76). Hillsdale, NJ Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Spiro, R.J. & Jehng, J.C. (10). Cognitive flexibility and hypertext Theory and
technology for the nonlinear and multidimensional traversal of complex subject
matter. In D. Nix, & R. J. Spiro (Eds.), Cognition, education, and multimedia Exploring ideas in high technology (pp. 16-05). Hillsdale, NJ Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Stephens, L.C. (15). The design, development, and evaluation of literacy education Applications and practice (LEAP), an interactive hypermedia program for
English/Language/Arts teacher education [Electronic version] Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Houston. Retrieved April 16, 00, from
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