Collaborative Learning: Leveraging Concept Mapping and Cognitive Flexibility Theory

Collaborative Learning: Leveraging Concept Mapping and Cognitive Flexibility Theory

Chaka Chaka (Walter Sisulu University, South Africa)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-59904-992-2.ch008
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This chapter explores the interface between collaborative learning (CL), concept mapping (CMing) and cognitive flexibility theory (CFT). The major argument of the chapter is that concept maps (CMs) are versatile and multi-purpose tools with cross-disciplinary applications. In view of this, the chapter reports on 15 research studies to serve a dual purpose: to support its argument and to demonstrate the link between CL and CMing on the one hand, and between CMing/CL and CFT on the other hand. The focal points of the chapter are: CMs as tools for supporting and facilitating CL; CMs as assessment tools in CL environments; CMs as drivers for collaborative curricular initiatives; CMs as higher-order thinking and problem solving tools; and CL/CMs and CFT.
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Collaborative learning (CL) lies at the heart of collective learner-directed learning approaches. It represents a major shift away from teacher-dominated learning approaches to a more egalitarian view of learning. It is a methodological innovation which encourages a co-production of knowledge, a co-determination of meaning, collective problem solving, and multiple perspectives among learners and between learners and teachers. It also enhances cognitive skills and harnesses different learning styles. Above all, CL serves as an antidote to individualistic and competitive winner-takes-all learning tendencies. As such, it fosters a communitarian spirit and a sense of togetherness among learners. Most importantly, it acts as a vehicle for navigating and bridging cultural diversity and linguistic pluralism.

It is against this background that both concept mapping (CMing) and cognitive flexibility theory (CFT) come into the picture. For example, CMing is used to generate ideas, design complex structures, communicate complex ideas and evaluate understanding or identify misunderstanding. Additionally, it promotes relational and critical thinking. It also helps abstract important information; organise and structure knowledge; integrate new knowledge with old knowledge; retain knowledge for longer spells; and apply knowledge to new contexts (Milam, Santo & Heaton, n.d.).

In this context, CFT espouses the view that learning is better leveraged through a variety of problems and cases. It argues that learners tend to acquire complex and ill-structured knowledge through multiple perspectives or multiple representations. It further maintains that the proof of the newly acquired knowledge lies in its successful application by learners to new and different knowledge domains. Thus, the multiple perspectives or representations of knowledge and the successful application of any knowledge to new contexts can be better facilitated by both CL and CMing. This is particularly so as CL leverages the collective views of several learners and since CMing encourages representing knowledge from different angles. On this basis, Figure 1 provides a CM outline of this chapter.

Figure 1.

Chapter outline represented through a concept map


Collaborative Learning, Concept Mapping And Cognitive Flexibility Theory: Overview

The theoretical framework (TF) informing this chapter draws on constructivism, cognitivism and CFT. The first incorporates social construction while the second subsumes assimilation theory. In this context, both constructivism and cognitivism serve as a theoretical base for CL and CMing. For example, CL is rooted in social construction. Most importantly, through leveraging CL - in a social constructionist environment - learners are able to develop complex conceptual frames based on their collective prior knowledge. Similarly, CMing is grounded in assimilation theory that posits new knowledge can be learnt effectively by relating it to prior knowledge. Thus, assimilation theory displays subsumption, integrative reconciliation and progressive differentiation (Maas & Leauby, 2005). On this basis, both constructivist epistemology and CFT are underpinned by the common view that knowledge domains are complex and ill-structured.

Collaborative learning (CL) is an umbrella term for various approaches in education encompassing collective learning endeavours by learners or by learners and teachers. It refers to both learning methodologies and learning environments whereby learners engage in common activities with all of them depending on and accountable to each other. One of its core objectives is to enable learners to work together as groups so as to search for content understanding, meaning or solutions or so as to undertake a learning task. So, it is dialogic and multimodal in nature.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Integrative Reconciliation: This is relational cross-links representing new relationships between new concepts and existing conceptual structure. Thus, integrating new concepts entails reconciling new information with the old information.

Subsumption: This refers to when new information is linked with existing concepts and conceptual relations in a student’s conceptual structure during conceptual change.

Harvard Method: This is the Harvard Business School’s case method meant to stimulate critical and creative thinking among students so as to help them solve problems and make decisions for organisational purposes.

Coherent understanding: This is a term drawing strongly on the concept of cognitive flexibility. It puts emphasis on a bird’s eye overview of the material and suggests a multifaceted picture of the learning process.

Panteon: It is a Portuguese acronym for Applied Project of New Technologies for On-Line Case Studies. It is a Web-based databank allowing business students to create and diagnose hypertextual case studies about complex organisational environments.

Cognitivism: This epistemology treats conceptual understandings as a pattern of connections between similar elements (e.g., concepts) and learning as strengthening or weakening those connections (e.g., conceptual relations).

Disequilibrium: Disequilibrium signifies that students experience uncertainty and search for information to clarify their understanding regarding material during the CMing process.

Equilibrium: This refers to regaining comfort with material by achieving understanding and the restructuring of mental schema held about the material.

Progressive Differentiation: This is when new concepts are introduced first in one’s conceptual framework and are then progressively differentiated in terms of detail and specificity.

Constructivism: Even though there is no single constructivist theory, constructivism mainly contends that learners, through interacting with their social world, actively construct, test and refine knowledge.

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