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Cognitive Flexibility

Cognitive Flexibility An Article about cognitive flexibility and how you can use it to introduce real life challenge into any lesson.

This is a Free Sample Resource
Categories: Article, Thinking Skills, Any Subject, All Ages

Tags: High Order Thinking Metacognition


Before you read any further you really need to try this out (bet you can't get them all correct. I got 5 wrong first try):

So, how did you do? Frustrating isn't it? But the Stroop Test is a good way to introduce the idea of cognitive flexibility.

This high order skill is your ability to switch effectively between mental tasks and to handle multiple tasks at once. You're a teacher. You know EXACTLY what cognitive flexibility is AND you probably get frustrated that some of your pupils don't yet.

So here's what you might do about that:

Designing it in

It would probably backfire to suddenly give your students too much to think about and too many quick changes of topic. There's a concept called 'cognitive load' that defines how much input a brain can handle before it stops paying attention. In fact a finite cognitive load is a strong argument against excessive use of colour, animation and sound in educational media; valuable brain capacity is used up dealing with all the frills and less is available to process the content. Some flare and dazzle is needed, but only sufficient to grab and hold attention.

So start small and involve pupils in what you are doing. Explain about cognitive flexibility and let them loose on the Stroop Test. Then experiment with accelerated change: 10 minutes on spellings - 10 minutes on times tables - 10 minutes reading - 10 minutes exercise - 10 minutes group discussion about the current topic. See how it goes. Get their feedback. Adjust the timings and activities. The purpose here is to find out how your pupils cope with a speeded up learning environment. One that probably mimics their eventual working life far more accurately than conventional school does.

Raising the brain bar

Now try out tasks that require 2 or more strands of learning to be managed at the same time. Group work is good for this. In small groups, assign pupils a role and set the group a task and a timescale. The trick here is to set just too much to do in just too little time with just enough skill in the group and just enough available resources. You want groups to 'kind of' succeed, but to be under pressure in doing so. Everyone attempts to focus simultaneously on their group role, group interactions, time left, personal task as well as the final outcome.


There may well be tears. It's tricky to get tasks like this right for everyone and sometimes the cognitive demand we've placed on our students outstrips their cognitive flexibility. It's worth saying to them up front that this WILL be challenging. A pre-existing culture of grit, determination and resilience can go some way to mitigating the pressures. But it remains a valuable and important experience for pupils to come right up to their current cognitive limit in a safe environment with a thoughtful and caring educator (you) to help them grow through the experience.

A mind stretched by a new idea never returns to its original size - Oliver Postman

Related Resources:

Brain: PowerPoint

Brain: Think Sheet

Brain: Thinking Focus

Cognitive Flexibility Think Sheet

Comedy & Learning

Flex Thinking (Premium)

Flex Thinking (Standard)

Flex Thinking PowerPoint


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