Cognitive Flexibility

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by Angela Crocker

In this article, readers will explore the meaning of cognitive flexibility including a variety of overlapping definitions. They will also gain a better understanding of the benefits of cognitive flexibility. An overview of research and suggestions for practice that can improve students’ cognitive flexibility are noted. The suggested student activities support the core competencies of the British Columbia curriculum deployed in 2016-17. These include communication, thinking, and personal-social competencies.

What is cognitive flexibility?

Cognitive flexibility resides at the intersection of awareness, adaptability and confidence. It is the mind’s ability to process new or changing information and the flexibility to change thinking or action to accommodate updated information[1](Bilgin, 2009, Bock, 2009). Sometimes referred to as set-shifting or attentional flexibility[2] the foundational concept remains the same.

Venn diagram showing cognitive flexibility at the intersection of awareness, adaptability, and confidence.

Awareness

Awareness is essential to be alert to increased or decreased options in a given situation (Bilgin, 2009; Gündüz, 2013). Cognitive flexibility incorporates awareness to bolster the ability to think about more than one item at a time (Cartwright, 2002). With awareness, the individual can consider multiple variables simultaneously. These variables include interconnected thoughts, experiences and objects. This skill to divide attention between two or more information channels is vital (Anderson, 2002) and indicates cognitive flexibility.

Adaptability

Meanwhile, adaptability reflects the individual’s ability to change reactions and interactions to suit a new or varied situation (Bilgin, 2009; Gündüz, 2013). This involves shifts in thinking and attention to respond to changing conditions or rules (Hund & Foster, 2008). It’s also the ability to view an object or situation from two or more perspectives at the same time (Chi, 1997) and the ability to simultaneously process two or more tasks at a time (Cartwright, 2002). Furthermore, cognitive flexibility allows the individual to apply lessons from past mistakes and devise alternative strategies (Anderson, 2002).

Let’s use household chores as an analogy for cognitive flexibility. A home owner is aware that housekeeping must be done on a regular basis. That awareness is heightened when there is dust on the television. Let’s suppose the usual cleaning tool isn’t available. Instead of using a duster, the home owner must find an alternative way to clean the television. They could use a damp cloth, the sleeve of their sweatshirt, hire a cleaning service, or buy a new television. Now multiply that solution seeking across several simultaneous cleaning projects – window washing, toilet cleaning, scum busting – and you experience the cognitive flexibility necessary to transition between housekeeping chores and ensure the cleaning gets done even without the usual cleaning tools.

Confidence

In addition to awareness and adaptability, cognitive flexibility includes an element of confidence, that self-knowledge that one can exert control in a given situation and react according to the latest information. As described by Martin & Anderson, this is known as self-efficacy (as cited in Bilgin, 2009).

In cognitive flexibility, awareness, adaptability and confidence join forces. In combination, these three pillars support the “mental abilities underlying creative thinking” (Ritter et al., 2014) and form a core part of executive function (Stahl, 2005; Welsh, Pennington & Grossier, 1991, Anderson, 2002).

Why is cognitive flexibility beneficial?

The benefits of cognitive flexibility support an individual in many ways. The more flexible their thinking, the better able they are to adapt to new situations. They also experience benefits of improved social understanding and communication as well as personal wellness gains and enhanced creativity.

Increased Adaptability

Cognitive flexibility equips the learner to approach unfamiliar tasks by adapting what has already been learned, including recently acquired information. Cognitive flexibility also allows the learner to apply their knowledge when the situation changes, a task must be performed in a new location, or unfamiliar tools must be used. It allows the individual to adapt their response to suit the situation and conditions (Hund & Foster, 2008).

Social Understanding

Cognitive flexibility has been correlated to social understanding, a complex construct that also incorporates memory and inhibition (Bock, 2015). Cognitive flexibility helps an individual gain awareness of “his or her own behavior as well as the behavior of his or her communication partner(s)” (Snyder, 1974; Koesten et al., 2009). It also plays a role in self-regulation, a key component of social interaction (Stahl & Pry, 2005).

Social understanding improves with age in keeping with a significant increase in both spatial working memory and flexibility in middle childhood. Research supports the understanding that significant cognitive flexibility is present in children 7 years and older (Bock, 2015, Cartwright, 2002; Stahl & Pry, 2005; Chevalier et al., 2010). As individuals age, they are better able to perceive and understand desires, beliefs and emotions (Bock, 2015). That improved perception is supported by cognitive flexibility.

Communication

Cognitive flexibility allows the flexible individual to identify more ideas than the inflexible individual (Ritter, 2014). In part, this skill enhances attention (Stahl & Pry, 2005) allowing the individual awareness of multiple ideas, tasks or actions. As such, cognitive flexibility allows an individual to see more than one solution to an argument and the ability to resolve conflict more readily (Koesten et al., 2009; Martin & Rubin, 1995). In addition, individuals use cognitive flexibility to avoid or diffuse conflict with a corresponding decrease in aggression (Bilgin, 2009; Martin & Anderson, 1998). Overall, cognitive flexibility is one component of communication that enhances perception of being a “competent communicator” (Koesten et al., 2009; Spitzberg, 2003).

Health & Wellness

Cognitive flexibility has been correlated to enhanced health and wellness. By enhancing interpersonal skills amongst families, especially those with adolescents, cognitive flexibility supports healthier family communication and wellness (Gündüz, 2013; Koesten et al., 2009). This, in turn, seems to foster healthier lifestyle choices resulting in a more positive outlook (Martin & Anderson, 1998). Improved physical and mental well-being is supported by cognitive flexibility (Gündüz, 2013; Koesten et al., 2009).

Creativity

Cognitive flexibility has been shown to bolster creative thinking. It permits individuals to perceive and reorder information in new ways (Ritter, 2014). This enhances creativity (Ritter, 2014) and allows an individual to “generate a diversity of ideas” (Stahl & Pry, 2005). It also enhances the ability to share original ideas and the uniqueness of those ideas across “ideational categories” (Runco, 1991). How can we assess cognitive flexibility? At present, the Cognitive Flexibility Scale (CFS) developed by Martin & Anderson (1998) (as cited by Martin & Rubin, 1995; Jones & Spiro, 1995; Koesten et al., 2009) is the only means of formally assessing cognitive flexibility. The validity of this instrument has been tested repeatedly (Martin et al., 1998; Bilgin, 2009).

The CFS uses a semantic differential scale that can be used with any group, regardless of age, culture, socio-economic status or other consideration. With CFS, the researcher presents 19 adjective pairs for participants to respond to on a 5-point Likert scale. The minimum possible score is 19 and the highest possible score is 95. The adjective pairs are listed in Table 1.

Table 1: Adjective Pairs of the Cognitive Flexibility Scale (Bilgin, 2009)

Likert Score 1 Likert Score 2
1 Cowardly Brave
2 Unwilling Willing
3 Not self-confident Self-confident
4 Not resolute Resolute
5 Lacks self-belief Has self-belief
6 Loser Winner
7 Passive Active
8 Unsuccessful Successful
9 Not loved by family Loved by family
10 Bad Good
11 Worthless Worthy
12 Egoist Selfless
13 Ugly Beautiful/Handsome
14 Unlikeable Likeable
15 Loved by nobody Loved by everybody
16 Doesn’t know what he/she wants Knows what he/she wants
17 Irresolute Resolute
18 Indifferent Enthusiastic
19 Unstable Stable

The adjective pairs in the CFS are divided into three dimensions – the evaluation indicator (pairs 1-8), the power indicator (pairs 9-14) and the activity indicator (pairs 15-19). Upon statistical analysis, the 19 items and 3 indicators provide a CFS score which is considered a reliable measure of an individual’s adaptability towards events. However, it is recommended the CFS be used in conjunction with additional measures of cognitive flexibility yet to be developed (Bilgin, 2009).

It’s worth noting that the CFS assessment of cognitive flexibility is beyond practical use for the classroom teacher. That said, with knowledge of a cognitive flexibility, a teacher can informally assess students’ cognitive flexibility and implement activities to enhance it.

What enhances cognitive flexibility?

Given the benefits of cognitive flexibility, it is desirable to enhance it in every way possible. Some potential enhancements are beyond our control, take age for example. Other enhancements can be manipulated to support the development and maintenance of cognitive flexibility. These include rewards, introductions to interconnected knowledge and schema violations.

Age

Age influences an individual’s ability and approach to flexible behavior (Chevalier, 2010). Cognitive flexibility develops most rapidly when children are in elementary school, especially after age 7 (Cartwright, 2002; Anderson 2002; Bock, 2015). Cognitive flexibility continues to improve from childhood to adulthood. Evidence suggests there are age-related differences and benefits (Chevalier, 2010). Later in life, there is a loss of cognitive flexibility concurrent with the rise of dementia and other cognitive impairments associated with aging.

Rewards

Research suggests that cognitive flexibility can be improved with rewards. The size of the reward reflects the scale of the improvement (Fröber, 2015). If a reward remains static, there is little incentive to stretch to new interpretations or answers. However, if a reward grows in size over a series of trials, an individual will stretch to find a wider range of interpretations (Fröber & Dreisbach, 2016). As such, rewards modulate cognitive flexibility.

Interconnected knowledge

Teachers and learning environment can enhance learners’ understandings of the layers and links between different aspects of a topic. By exposing students to different perspectives and points of view about a topic, they experience interconnected knowledge. That knowledge can be applied both vertically and horizontally. For example, arithmetic can be used as a foundation for geometry, algebra and calculus, a vertical silo of knowledge. At the same time, arithmetic can be applied horizontally to biology, chemistry and physics as well as food safety, wood working and physical education. Once learned, the interconnected knowledge and cognitive flexibility, allow individuals to apply strategies learned in school outside the classroom for a lifetime (Jones & Spiro, 1995).

Schema violations

In the cognitive psychology view, all individuals absorb new information and organize it in a schema, essentially a road map of information in the brain. As new information in assimilated, it is added to existing schema. If information doesn’t fit the existing schema, then the schema is altered to accommodate the new information. Over a lifetime, the complexity increases exponentially (Passer, 2011, p451-452). Cognitive flexibility can be enhanced by schema violations. A schema violation occurs when an individual encounters information that doesn’t fit or contradicts the existing schema. Research suggests “that active involvement is needed for schema violations to facilitate cognitive flexibility” (Ritter et al., 2014).

Cognitive Flexibility in Practice

In British Columbia, a new curriculum was deployed province-wide in the 2016-17 school year. Three core competencies are the focus of the new curriculum. They include communication, thinking, and personal-social. These competencies permeate learning objectives outlined by subject for all grade levels (British Columbia Ministry of Education (n.d.).

Cognitive flexibility plays a role in all three competencies. Communication is enhanced when students can absorb and interpret information in more than one way. Their ability to share that new knowledge is also enhanced by cognitive flexibility. Thinking includes elements of both creative thinking and critical thinking. Again, cognitive flexibility enhances students’ abilities. Finally, personal-social competencies reflect cognitive flexibility especially in regards to personal awareness and social responsibility. As cognitive flexibility enhances aspects of all three competencies, let’s explore how teachers can incorporate it into their practice (British Columbia Ministry of Education, n.d.).

Activities for younger students

Teachers have great scope when incorporating activities that promote cognitive flexibility. Often is it a matter of introducing creativity in a variety of ways. As examples, teachers can use the activities outlined below to build elementary school student’s cognitive flexibility. Consider these activities as a starting point and add adaptations and variations to the classroom to suit a particular group of learners. These suggested activities are inspired Amanda Morin, author of The Everything Parents’ Guide to Special Education (Morin, n.d.).

  • Encourage students to explore language. Play word games such as Fannee Doolee where the permitted answers have double letters. She likes jelly not jam, for example.
  • Introduce the notion of multiple meanings and slang. Share puns and define idioms such as couch potato, cold shoulder and piece of cake.
  • Talk about perspective and how we can redefine what we see. Give familiar objects new names and purposes. A coffee cup becomes a hat, a habitat for tiny aliens or a seaworthy ship.
  • Suggest trying new approaches. Make up new rules for familiar games. Try playing a board games counter clockwise or scoring fouls instead of runs in baseball.
  • Break up patterns and try activities in unfamiliar sequences. For example, build a sandwich by putting the mustard on the lettuce rather than the bread.

Activities for older students

With older students, teachers have increased scope for building cognitive flexibility. The sample activities listed below were inspired by Judy Willis, a contributor to the Edutopia community, to build cognitive flexibility in middle school and high school students (Willis, 2016).

  • Teach using broad queries that have multiple possible answers so that students can flex their divergent thinking skills. Let them share a range of answers – all of which add to the class’ understanding. Avoid a single teacher-defined “right answer.”
  • Pause before calling on students to answer a question in class. Have students wait to raise their hand giving everyone a chance to formulate a reply.
  • Add activities that encourage divergent thinking. Retell familiar stories from another character’s point of view; try Anne of Green Gables from the perspective of the station master. Or have emerging artists interpret a familiar painting in a new style; Monet as Joe Average, for example.
  • Share existing perspectives to demonstrate the range of possibilities. For example, contrast the Disney film Moana with accounts of life in Polynesia.
  • Provide opportunities to transfer new knowledge. After a study of the election system, explore how the world would be different if women didn’t get the vote until 2010.

Activities for adolescents and adults

Teachers can also provide older students with activities to enhance cognitive flexibility. Once taught, the activities can be done as a group or as self-directed activities. These activities are suitable for both adolescents and adults, particularly those in high school or pursuing post-secondary studies. Some mirror activities described earlier for younger students while others are unique to adulthood. All undertake to enhance cognitive flexibility (Stenger, 2017).

  • Make changes to your daily schedule. Do errands, work tasks and personal activities in a different order. If you normally read email and Facebook first thing in the morning, try checking your feeds after lunch instead.
  • Try new things. Experiencing something unfamiliar can expand our thinking. Take up knitting or go hiking or some other new experience.
  • Explore “desirable difficulties” by doing something without assistance. For example, find an address without using your mobile phone or GPS dvice.
  • Expand your social circle and allow new people to share their experiences with you and, in turn, expand your perspective. Take a course in a new subject, join an online community of interest or volunteer for a community project to connect with new people.
  • Reconsider your beliefs and values. Expose yourself to new places or cultures to see different perspectives. You may not change your beliefs or values but you’ll broaden your understanding.

Conclusion

In this article, many aspects of cognitive flexibility were explored. These included multiple, overlapping definitions as well as ways the benefits of cognitive flexibility. Readers have also explore ways to assess cognitive flexibility and ideas to enhance it. In addition, activities to support cognitive flexibility for various age groups were provided in the context of the British Columbia curriculum rolled out in 2016-17. Overall, the importance of cognitive flexibility in creative thinking, well-being and other positive attributes are affirmed.

References

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  2. Stahl, L., & Pry, R. (2005). Attentional flexibility and perseveration: developmental aspects in young children. Child Neuropsychology, 11, 175-189.
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  4. British Columbia Ministry of Education (n.d.). Core Competencies. Retrieved July 12, 2017, from https://curriculum.gov.bc.ca/competencies
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