It’s the area of cognitive flexibility. 

Cognitive flexibility is the ability to switch between different tasks and related behavioural reactions. It’s the maintaining of multiple concepts simultaneously and shifting our attention between them. In the context of learning, this is a critical area of knowledge and research.

In a sense, it can be seen as our brain’s ability to adapt to a variety of concepts and applying them to our current needs or applications.

Cognitive flexibility varies over our lifespan. As we get older, our ability increases as we have more experiences to draw from. Additionally, conditions such as OCD, seem to be associated with reduced levels of cognitive flexibility. The inference is that when we are distracted by things that focus our attention, we are less able to adapt to the information that is being shared with us. It appears the adage of ‘attention = learning’ is highlighted here. 

Since cognitive flexibility is vital to our ability to learn at a higher level, shortfalls in this area will have a number of implications.

The idea of multitasking comes into view in this instance. The reality is that we are not actually multitasking at all, but rather ‘switch-tasking’ between concepts. The more we train our brains to ‘switch-task’ – the better we are at completing tasks that require attention to multiple inputs. Examples include working in a commercial kitchen or running a childcare centre – these tasks require attention to a number of sensory inputs and reactions to information that require fast attention. The more we are exposed to these environments, the better our ability to switch-task. 

Two common approaches to cognitive flexibility focus on our unconscious capacity for task switching and our conscious ability of cognitive shifting. Research conducted with people across wide age groups have informed us just how cognitive flexibility develops and changes within the brain.

This research has also suggested that cognitive flexibility relates to other mental abilities, such as fluid intelligence, reading fluency, and reading comprehension. Fluid intelligence is described as the ability to solve problems in new situations. The idea of solving problems in novel environments is well known among education researchers. It is known as context independent learning. Where a learner will undertake their learning in a number of different contexts in order to enhance their ability to complete the task in a novel context. 

When someone is able to reason fluidly, they are more likely to be cognitively flexible. And those who are able to be cognitively flexible appear to have the ability to switch between or simultaneously think about sounds and meanings, which increases their reading fluency and comprehension. 

Cognitive flexibility also relates to an individual’s ability to cope in particular situations. For example, when individuals are better able to shift their thinking from situation to situation they will focus less on stressors within these situations. 

We can apply this research to our classrooms in a number of ways. Firstly, by recognising that learners will generally struggle with competing ideas, we can organise the flow of our topics more logically. 

If we want to engage those who possess a higher form of cognitive flexibility, we can create activities that pose higher levels of problem solving. We can integrate a number of tasks that would appear in a real workplace, to evaluate the learner’s ability to switch-task and apply fluidity techniques to their problem-solving requirements. 

If you’re completing a Certificate IV in training and assessment, or the Diploma of VET or training design, this research has valid applications for you. You may consider the use of language, the way you structure activities, or the design of new programs. In any circumstance – using the latest research will help you validate the way you construct your learning programs.