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Learning In Ill-Structured Domains Series: Cognitive Flexibility Theory

Table of Contents

How do you learn when everything you’ll see in business and investing is new and unique?

Note, this series is now freely available, in conjuction with the release of the Commoncog Case Library. Read more here.

This is a series about Cognitive Flexibility Theory. It is a theory about effective learning in ill-structured domains.

An ill-structured domain (Spiro et al, 1988) is a specific kind of domain where there are concepts, but the way concepts instantiate are highly variable.

As a result, experts in ill-structured domains have to deal with constant novelty, where every problem is unlike previous cases that the expert has seen.

Example domains include medicine — where there are concepts like 'heart attack', but the way heart attacks show up in patients are highly variable — but also include domains like business, software engineering, and investing.

This series explores how we should think about learning in ill-structured domains. Amongst other things, it tells us how and why to read history.

  1. How To Learn From Other People's Experiences — A first attempt at explaining CFT, that quotes the original paper very closely. Fair warning: this is a fairly dense post; if you'd like a readable summary, read the next link instead.
  2. How Note Taking Can Help You Become An Expert — An explanation of CFT, and what it tells us about expertise in novel, ill-structured domains.
  3. The Principles Are Useless On Their Own — What it means if cases are more important than concepts in your domain.
  4. Ill-Structured Domains Aren’t Necessarily Wicked — It's important to disambiguate between wicked domains and ill-structured domains. It might not surprise you, for instance, that investing is both wicked and ill-structured, but it may surprise you that well-structured domains like medicine can both be wicked and kind.
  5. Cognitive Flexibility Theory: The Rules — An actionable summary to wrap up the series.

Related: Don’t Read History For Lessons — an application of all the ideas here, but on the topic of reading history.

Also, I had the good fortune of talking to Rand Spiro himself, which resulted in two essays:

  • Dancing Landscapes in Business — The three kinds of solution landscapes in a complex adaptive system.
  • Focus on the Cases — Why it’s more important to pay attention to the details of a business case, not the concept the case is supposed to illustrate.

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