Cognitive Styles

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Cognitive Styles and Learning Styles

Cognitive styles describe how the individual acquires knowledge (cognition) and processes information (conceptualization). Cognitive styles are related to mental behaviors which individuals apply habitually when they are solving problems. In general, they affect the way in which information is obtained, sorted, and utilized. Cognitive style is usually described as a stable and persistent personality dimension which influences attitudes, values, and social interaction. It is a characteristic of cognitive processing which is particular to a certain individual or class of individuals.

Before the 1970s, individual differences were synonymous with differences in ability, at least in the field of learning theory. Nevertheless, many psychologists in the 1950s and 1960s became increasingly concerned about the narrowness of abilities measured by standard intelligence tests. Emphasis on abstract logical reasoning seemed to restrict intelligence to “convergent thinking” towards pre-determined answers but excluded the type of "divergent thinking" which leads to imaginative or creative innovation. Guilford (1965) introduced a model of the structure of the intellect which differentiated between a number of cognitive operations, including convergent and divergent thinking. Divergent thought soon became equated with creativity, but although his concepts of fluency, flexibility, and originality are still widely used, the value of his contributions to the understanding of creative thinking is now thought to be questionable.

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To date, as many as 19 different ways of describing cognitive styles have been identified, all of which consist of bi-polar distinctions
(Entwistle, 1988).

It was Witkin who introduced the term “cognitive style” to describe the concept that individuals consistently exhibit stylistic preferences for the ways in which they organize stimuli and construct meanings for themselves out of their experiences. Cognitive styles include variables within a single dichotomy such as global-holistic vs. focused-detailed, field-dependent vs. field-independent. Indeed, one of the most cited cognitive styles is the field-dependence-fieldindependence construct, which has become a sort of general theory of perception, intellect, and personality. According to Witkin, Moore, Goodenough, and Cox's (1977) definition, field independence is "the extent to which a person perceives part of a field as discrete from the surrounding field as a whole, rather than embedded in the field; or . . . the extent to which the person perceives analytically". These researchers found that bodily and visual cues usually coincide with each other, but when they do not, people tend to rely on either one of these two standards. Witkin (1977) developed the Group Embedded Figures Test (GEFT) to examine field dependence and field independence. The GEFT involves having someone find simple graphical figures which are embedded within more complex backgrounds.

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Witkin described individuals who tended to rely on external cues and were less able to identify an embedded figure in an organized field as being field dependent and those who tended to rely on internal cues and were more able to identify an embedded figure in an organized field as being field independent.

The central feature of this style is the "extent of autonomous functioning" (Witkin, Gooddenough, & Otman, 1979). This means that the key dimension individuals can be placed on is whether they characteristically rely on the external environment as a given rather than working on it. As the name suggests, those who tend to accept or rely on the external environment are relatively more Field Dependent (FD), while those who tend to work on it are relatively more Field Independent (FI). Witkin (1969, p. 294) argues that "the style of functioning we first picked up in perception … manifests itself as well in intellectual activity". Field dependence or field...
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