Cognitive Style

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How can several people look at one common object and describe it correctly, yet in so many different ways? Why is it that people exhibit the same variability when experiencing identical events? Psychologists believe that individual biological and psychological differences affect the ways in which people perceive events, objects, sights, sounds, and feelings. Thus, when several people encounter an identical object or event, each might experience a different perception of that object or event. There is no question that the exposure of infants and children to different experiences shapes their personalities and influences who they are and how they interpret things. And many educators and researchers are now focusing their attention on these differences to further understand how individuals in the classroom perceive information and learn in different ways.

Cognitive style is the manner by which individuals perceive information in the environment and the patterns of thought that they use to develop a knowledge base about the world around them. The concept of styles of cognition, an area under continuing investigation, has been discussed and researched in the psychological community as early as the late 1930s. Knowledge gained concerning cognitive styles provides the opportunity to learn more about individual differences. This knowledge can then be applied to assist teachers, counselors, and all professionals who are involved in children's learning experiences.

There are three very important cognitive styles: leveling-sharpening, field-dependence/field-independence, and reflectivity-impulsivity. Cognitive styles are distinct from individual intelligence, but they may affect personality development and how individuals learn and apply information. And while research has shown that these differences precede environmental shaping, the effects of cognitive styles can be accented or mitigated by many outside factors, such as classroom setting, social experiences, and vocational choices. It is for this reason that research in this area is so important and that it is critical to train educational professionals in methods to address these differences in the classroom.

Leveling and Sharpening

Leveling and sharpening is a cognitive style that represents the way in which an individual uses previous memories when attempting to assimilate new information with prior knowledge. This cognitive style was described in the mid-1950s and was studied by Philip Holzman and George Klein, among others. Prior to the 1990s, the Squares Test, which was developed by the Menninger Foundation, was one of the methods of identifying levelers and sharpeners.

People who are levelers tend to select many memories from the past in an attempt to clarify and categorize newly acquired information. Sharpeners, on the other hand, seem to select fewer memories when processing new knowledge. In his 1997 book Cognitive Styles and Classroom Learning, Harry Morgan contended that, overall, sharpeners tend to have more accurate identifications of new knowledge and can relate recently acquired material to old material with more specificity. This may be due to an ability to selectively sort and store pieces of memories and to carefully differentiate associations between past experiences. By contrast, levelers inaccurately blend features of memories together and then oversimplify the new material or miscategorize it altogether. They can miss distinguishing features among similar, yet not identical, objects. This could result in definitions of later knowledge that are ambiguous.

Field-Dependence and Field-Independence

Another area where individuals show differences in their abilities to discriminate events or visual, auditory, or tactile cues from their surrounding environments is known as field-dependence/field-independence. Herman Witkin conducted much of the original research in this area in the 1950s. A field-dependent person has difficulty finding a geometric shape that is embedded or "hidden" in a background with similar (but not identical) lines and shapes. The conflicting patterns distract the person from identifying the given figure. A person who is field-independent can readily identify the geometric shape, regardless of the background in which it is set. This manner of interpretation, however, is not limited to visual cues. Many researchers are studying auditory and other sensory perception abilities that may vary from person to person.

There is also a strong connection between this cognitive style and social interactions. People who are field-dependent are frequently described as being very interpersonal and having a well-developed ability to read social cues and to openly convey their own feelings. Others describe them as being very warm, friendly, and personable. Interestingly, Witkin and Donald Goodenough, in their 1981 book Cognitive Styles, explained that this may be due to a lack of separation between the self and the environment (or "field") on some level. Field-dependent people notice a lack of structure in the environment (if it exists) and are more affected by it than other people.

By contrast, individuals who are field-independent use an "internal" frame of reference and can easily impose their own sense of order in a situation that is lacking structure. They are also observed to function autonomously in social settings. They are sometimes described as impersonal and task-oriented. These people, however, do have the ability to discern their own identity of self from the field. In addition, a strong correlation has been discovered between gender and field orientation. Women are more likely to be field-dependent, whereas men are frequently field-independent. Career tasks and job descriptions are also closely aligned with field-dependence/field-independence.

Specifically of concern to educators is the discovery that field-dependent children do not do as well in large group settings or class activities where the lessons are not highly structured. There are also indications that these same individuals do not perform as well on open-ended questions as compared to students who are field-independent.

Reflectivity and Impulsivity

Reflectivity and impulsivity are polar ends of a spectrum in a third and very substantial cognitive style. Studies in this domain began in the early 1960s with several researchers, such as Jerome Kagan. One of the methods for testing this cognitive style involves administration of the Matching Familiar Figures Test, which requires subjects to view a picture of an object and then attempt to match the object when presented with the same object in a group of similar objects. The test is then scored according to the time required to identify the objects and the accuracy of identification.

Neil Salkind and John Wright have studied scoring measures for this cognitive style. People who are slower than the median, but score more accurately than the median, are considered to be "reflective." In a classroom, these would typically be the students who take extended time on a task and produce very accurate work. Those who test faster than the median but score below the median of accuracy are "impulsive." These individuals are frequently described as students who rush through assignments, frequently missing the correct answers. In addition, impulsive students do not consider as many alternative answers when presented with open-ended questions as compared to reflective students. These same students also have a more global approach to information processing and do not identify the parts of a whole as readily as their peers. They also have difficulty with delayed gratification on tasks. Reflective students are more analytical in their problem-solving approach and do not have the same level of difficulty with delayed gratification.

Given that these differences in reflectivity-impulsivity are apparent as early as preschool, it is fascinating to consider developing classrooms that provide equal opportunities for learning and demonstration of application to students at both ends of this spectrum. Several studies indicate, however, that the traditional classroom favors the reflective students over the impulsive ones. Specific to education, studies have found that students who are placed with a reflective teacher tend to score more reflectivity at the end of the year than at the beginning, while students placed with an impulsive teacher score higher levels of impulsivity at the end of the year. This indicates that there is some environmental influence on the level of reflectivity-impulsivity and its expression in student behavior.

It is important to note that correlational studies have been conducted on any relationship between intelligence and each of the three cognitive styles. There is consistent data indicating no direct relationship exists between cognitive styles and intelligence. Nevertheless, an individual's ability to acquire knowledge on an equal plane with peers, or to demonstrate his or her knowledge in specific social or academic settings, may be affected by cognitive styles. Through early childhood development, continued success or frequent difficulties in these abilities could affect personality and social interactions.

Because of the potential influence of cognitive styles, additional educational research is necessary to assess the full effect that cognitive style has on a child's perception, analysis, and application of information presented in the classroom setting. There is also an implication that some assessment techniques used by educators may, by the nature of presentation, solicit different responses from students with differing cognitive styles. These testing methods should also be studied in terms of their interactions with individual cognitive styles.



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L. R. S.Martens

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Cognitive Style

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