A framework for cognitive styles (report)

In many different areas of science people are talking about cognitive styles. To give 2 examples: educators have tried to boost learning by focusing on differences in learning styles and management consultants tout the impact that different decision-making styles have on productivity. A new report from psychological scientists aims to integrate these disciplines by offering a new, integrated framework of cognitive styles that bridges different terminologies, concepts, and approaches.

And than you wonder, wait a minute, learning styles are a myth, no? Well, the authors discuss this discussion to a great length, but state that most of the discussion focuses on the matching between teaching and learning style that hasn’t been proven yet (and admit in the same vein that there is no valid instrument yet). Their idea is that when discussing learning styles we aren’t there yet and we better focus not on the preferences of the learner, but look at the content:

“(Kolloffel) found that regardless of their cognitive-style preferences, students received higher scores using a verbal format than using their preferred tree-diagram format, and that cognitive styles were not related to cognitive abilities. Hence, students should not choose instructional formats on the basis of their preferences, because this might lead them to select a format that is less effective for learning.

Similarly, P. D. Klein (2003) argued for greater emphasis on what are the most appropriate representations of information in specific contexts rather than focusing on matching learner and instruction styles.

From the press release:

The researchers 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 (including basic processing capacities, intelligence, and personality traits), they are primarily shaped in response to our changing environments. These environmental demands occur at various layers, 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.

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.

The matrix is a work in progress, but the researchers believe it has direct applications for applied fields such as education and business/management:

“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.

In the domain of business and management, for example, cognitive style is often 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. 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.

Abstract of the report that can be downloaded for free here:

The key aims of this article are to relate the construct of cognitive style to current theories in cognitive psychology and neuroscience and to outline a framework that integrates the findings on individual differences in cognition across different disciplines. First, we characterize cognitive style as patterns of adaptation to the external world that develop on the basis of innate predispositions, the interactions among which are shaped by changing environmental demands. Second, we show that research on cognitive style in psychology and cross-cultural neuroscience, on learning styles in education, and on decision-making styles in business and management all address the same phenomena. Third, we review cognitive-psychology and neuroscience research that supports the validity of the concept of cognitive style. Fourth, we show that various styles from disparate disciplines can be organized into a single taxonomy. This taxonomy allows us to integrate all the well-documented cognitive, learning, and decision-making styles; all of these style types correspond to adaptive systems that draw on different levels of information processing. Finally, we discuss how the proposed approach might promote greater coherence in research and application in education, in business and management, and in other disciplines.

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