Sunday, April 22, 2018

Cognitive Flexibility: Paving the Way For Learner Success

A few years back the World Economic Forum came out with an article titled The 10 skills you need to thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The opening two paragraphs sum up the point of the piece nicely:
By 2020, the Fourth Industrial Revolution will have brought us advanced robotics and autonomous transport, artificial intelligence and machine learning, advanced materials, biotechnology, and genomics. 
These developments will transform the way we live, and the way we work. Some jobs will disappear, others will grow and jobs that don’t even exist today will become commonplace. What is certain is that the future workforce will need to align its skillset to keep pace.

The image above shows the skills that will be most in demand in 2020 and probably well beyond. After reading this article I was extremely interested in how schools and educators provide opportunities for learners to not only acquire these skills but also illustrate competence in how they are applied. Some of the skills and how leaners can demonstrate competency are self-explanatory.  Others are not.  This led me to focus on one skill in particular that crept onto the list at number 10 – cognitive flexibility.  What does this skill entail?  Below is a good definition from the University of Miami:
Cognitive flexibility is the ability to shift our thoughts and adapt our behavior to the changing environment. In other words, it’s one’s ability to disengage from a previous task and respond effectively to a new one. It’s a faculty that most of us take for granted, yet an essential skill to navigate life. 
Spiro & Jehn (1990, P. 65) provide another look at the skill:
By cognitive flexibility, we mean the ability to spontaneously restructure one’s knowledge, in many ways, in adaptive response to radically changing situational demands.
Both definitions seamlessly align with Quad D learning based on the Rigor Relevance Framework as described below:
Students have the competence to think in complex ways and to apply their knowledge and skills they have acquired. Even when confronted with perplexing unknowns, students are able to use extensive knowledge and skill to create solutions and take action that further develops their skills and knowledge.
In my mind, cognitive flexibility might be the most important skill on the list as it incorporates so many of the others in some form or another.  Below are a few ideas and strategies on how to help learners develop this important skill:

  1. Design learning activities the support divergent thinking where learners demonstrate understanding in creative and non-conventional ways.
  2. Empower students to identify a solution and then come up with a workable solution in a makerspace.
  3. Allow students to explore a topic of interest in OpenCourseware and then demonstrate what they have learned in non-traditional ways (see IOCS).
  4. Implement personalized learning opportunities where students think critically, openly explore, and then do using their own intuitive ideas to learn in powerful ways.
  5. Engage students in a real-world application in unanticipated situations where they use their knowledge to tackle problems that have more than one solution. 
  6. Provide pathways for students to transfer learning to a new context. 

How we prepare our learners for the new world of work has to be a uniform focus for all schools.  The key to future-proofing education and learning is to get kids to think by engaging them in tasks that develop cognitive flexibility.  


  1. I can appreciate this call for addressing the development of cognitive flexibility in students and the different strategies that are proposed. Cognitive flexibility can also be broken down and explained further by metacognition, executive function, and self-regulation. Metacognition is the knowledge of what to do in a situation. Executive function is the cognitive processes used to put that knowledge to work, and self-regulation is the management of motivation and attention to want to do something. In order to help students develop the ability to be adaptive in changing situations and restructure their knowledge to do so, it is helpful to understand each of these aspects.
    A student’s metacognition hinges on the person, task, strategy, and interpersonal relationships. Students need clear and accurate feedback to develop proper self-efficacy and know where they stand. In order to know what to do, they need to know they can do it and where they can start. Then, in tackling a certain task, they need to understand the nature of the task and that initial thoughts about impossible or rigid the situation is not true. Knowing the right and wrong strategies to use in a situation is also crucial for metacognition and learned through necessary trial and error situations, which schools can create an environment for. Finally, interpersonal relations, like working in a team, contribute to students’ metacognition, and classrooms can motivate the practice of empathy and increase students’ understanding of the realities of social interactions.
    Executive function involves planning, monitoring, and evaluating used processes in a situation. Schools can promote planning skills and address making realistic, detailed goals for a task. Then, students should learn how to monitor their performance accurately and evaluate their anticipated progress toward a goal.
    Self-regulation and impulse control can be influenced by how teachers manage the classroom and instill a sense of grit in their students. Direct instruction regarding resisting impulses, expressing emotions, reframing failure, and writing reflectively can contribute to an environment in which students are encouraged to pursue a passion and perseverance for a long-term goal and to have agency in expressing their emotions and thoughts and choosing how to process them.
    Lastly, in a study on the effectiveness of self-paced learning by J. Tullis and A. Benjamin, learners with control of their study-time allocation performed better on a recognition judgment test than those with restricted control of study time. Thus, in order for students to know how to adapt in a novel situation and for schools to create a space for practicing and refining cognitive flexibility, allowing students to exercise independence and autonomous control may be crucial to their success.

  2. This is the first time I have heard the expression "Fourth Industrial Revolution." What most impressed me was the representation of people skills that was included in the graphic. This is something that I think about often: the tension between utilizing a greater amount of technology in instruction yet also addressing the need to develop social skills as well.

  3. So many of these things are people focused... which I love. I do think we have neglected to focus on that in society for so long.

    I agree with whomever said this is the first time they have heard "Fourth Industrial Revolution" too. Interesting...