New framework re-envisions cognitive styles based on revolutionary science; has huge impact for education

cognitive-styles-learningWhile the education field’s acceptance of learning styles is helping students receive more options for learning, students are often lumped into one category without any explanation of why they prefer to learn a certain way. However, a new cognitive matrix is about to change education’s perspective once again.

According to a work-in-progress cognitive matrix developed by noted psychologists and neuroscientists, a student’s learning style occurs for a reason—and can be predicted for the future.

Using a wide range of available evidence on cognitive styles, researchers were able to synthesize cognitive styles as proposed by different theories in one comprehensive and accessible framework.

“This new taxonomy of cognitive styles offers a clear categorization of different types of styles from basic and applied fields and thus eliminates the confusing labeling of styles, making it possible to integrate the findings on individual differences in cognition across different disciplines,” says researcher Maria Kozhevnikov, associate professor in psychology at the National University of Singapore; associate in Neuroscience at Massachusetts General Hospital; and lead author of the new report.

“Just like the chemical periodic table of elements, which allows scientists to predict the existence of elements and their compounds, the cognitive style matrix allows us to predict the properties of styles, predict unknown styles, and derive rules by which ‘compound’ styles form,” said the Association for Psychological Science (APS) in a statement.

Robert Sternberg, Department of Human Development, Cornell University noted that one of the main reasons why the matrix is so important is because educators tend to focus heavily only on student ability, without much thought or evidence as to why students learn certain ways or respond to different classroom practices.

“Part of the reason that so much variance has been unaccounted for in…behavior may be the lack of meaningful consideration of cognitive styles,” he said.

(Next page: How the cognitive style matrix works)

Researchers Kozhevnikov and co-authors Carol Evans of the University of Exeter (UK) and Stephen Kosslyn of the Minerva Schools at the Keck Graduate Institute draw on findings from psychological science and neuroscience to define cognitive style as: “Environmentally sensitive individual differences in cognition that help an individual to adapt to his or her environment.”

While these adaptive patterns or styles may initially grow out of innate predispositions (basic processing capacities, intelligence, and personality traits), they are primarily shaped in response to changing environments.

These environmental demands occur at various “layers,” say the researchers, from the immediate environment (e.g., school and family) all the way up to institutional patterns of culture (e.g., the economy, societal customs, and bodies of knowledge).

The framework, which builds on the work of Polish psychologist Chezlaw Nosal, shows that it is possible to organize and systematize all the dimensions of cognitive style into a matrix that represents various levels of information processing (from lower-order cognitive processing to higher order complex cognitive skills) on one axis and various cognitive style families (types of adaptations to external environment) on the other axis.

“Current style assessments in applied fields have serious limitations, focusing either too narrowly on one particular dimension or combining cognitive style dimensions with other unrelated variables,” says Kozhevnikov.

For example, Kozhevnikov describes that cognitive style, often in the business sector, is usually mapped onto a single “analytical-intuitive” dimension.

“Not only is this mapping overly simplistic, but it is typically based on outdated notions of left-right brain differences,” she said. “Although the left-brain/right-brain distinction has persisted in popular culture, there is little evidence to suggest that individual differences in cognitive processing can be linked to anatomical differences in the two hemispheres of the brain. The reality is that the brain works as a single interactive system.”

(Next page: How this helps education)

Another common misconception, say the researchers, is that information is easier to process when it matches a person’s preferred cognitive style.

This theory – known as the “matching hypothesis” in education – suggests, for example, that “visual learners” and “auditory learners” engage best with material presented in their preferred mode.

Yet, research suggests that style flexibility – being able to select among styles, monitor their effectiveness, and switch styles if necessary – may actually be more important than style rigidity.

“Teaching a student to select the most appropriate style to a given situation among a variety of styles and how to switch styles if necessary is a much more beneficial approach,” said Kozhevnikov.

According to the report’s authors, the new taxonomy can help researchers in education to develop instruments that more accurately tap into cognitive styles; help teachers assess which cognitive styles are required to perform a specific task well; and can inform the development of programs that train individuals to apply various styles.

“Research on cognitive style in psychology, culture-sensitive individual differences in neuroscience, learning styles in education, and decision styles in business and management all address the same phenomena,” says Kozhevnikov. “Integrating these phenomena into a unified framework not only illuminates the use of cognitive style in applied disciplines like education and in business and management, it also contributes to developments within the fields of cognitive psychology and neuroscience.”

The new framework is in the latest issue of Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. The full report, which includes the matrix, is available free to the public here: http://psi.sagepub.com/content/15/1/3.full#sec-6

[Material from a press release was used in this report]