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A Case for Cognitive Flexibility

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Policy makers need to wake up and take note of the new skill ‘Cognitive Flexibility’ as it facilitates switching of thoughts between multiple concepts or perspectives. This should be nurtured at the school level itself to prepare one for the fourth Industrial Age –PROF M M PANT

  In January 2016, Klaus Schwab drew our attention to the arrival of the 4th Industrial Revolution and described it as an era of fusion of the physical world, the biological world and the information world. The future of jobs report from the World Economic Forum then drew up a list of the most important skills needed in the year 2020 and beyond. A comparison with a similar list for 2015 shows some changes in relative importance of several skills, and the emergence of a new skill ‘cognitive flexibility’ which finds a mention in the list for 2020 but is not mentioned at all in the 2015 list.

Although three years have elapsed since this list has been known, there is little visible evidence that our education policy makers have noticed it. It is therefore left to progressive School leaders and informed and enlightened parents to foster these skills in their children, lest they become greater misfits in the world.

Long before the WEF report, the famous Physicist Einstein had said “Education is what remains after you have forgotten everything that you were taught at School.”

Others have expressed similar ideas in their own ways in somewhat different words. For example Jean Piaget used a phrase “knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do”. Guy Clayton used the phrase ‘ learning power’ to refer to the collection of psychological traits and skills that enable a person to engage effectively with a variety of learning challenges.

Though some may consider “Learning Power” as yet another form of intelligence, it differs from some more familiar notions of intelligence in a number of important ways. It may rather be considered as a composite of interwoven capacities (a braid) rather than a distinct monolithic mental activity. In contrast to IQ that is almost constant in a person, all elements of this composite ability are capable of improvement with training and practice. Cognitive Flexibility can therefore be nurtured and improved.

It has often been said that we are very rapidly (exponentially) moving towards a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world. In such a world it is the trinity of competence, comprehension and cognitive flexibility that will determine the winners. Sometimes competence may precede comprehension, and occasionally it may be the other way round.

At present in our rote learning and examination driven model, the cognitive view is so narrow and rigid that many children and their parents believe that Physics for the Board examinations is different from Physics for the IIT entrance examinations. The International Baccalaureate Diploma Program by including in its curriculum a subject “theory of knowledge” that covers epistemology goes some way in the acquisition of cognitive Flexibility, but the majority of students have no awareness of it.

Lord Kelvin had said that only if we can measure something, can we seriously enhance its presence. Researchers have developed inventories for cognitive Flexibility, so that by measurement and well designed interventions, it is possible to enhance the cognitive flexibility of an individual or any group of learners. This should begin at the School level itself as preparation for life in the fourth Industrial Age.

The future is already dictated by people who think innovatively. Be the future you want to see. Start thinking out of the box and train your brain to keep up with change. Robots can’t think for themselves. Humans have that advantage. Keep your mind active and hungry for continuous knowledge. The more you learn, the more you develop your cognitive flexibility. Cognitive Flexibility is one’s ability to switch thoughts between multiple concepts or perspectives. This capability is one of the main factors behind helping you to achieve your goals and generate unusual ideas. A high degree of cognitive flexibility is often associated with increased productivity as well as a healthier brain. Scientists have proven that you can improve your cognitive flexibility by a number of different ways. Some of them are as follows: proper nutrition, exercise and sleep, mindfulness, inner speech, Reading, variety of cognitive experiences, playing games including chess.

It is difficult to think of circumstances that illustrate the phrase ‘fusion of the physical world, the biological world and the information world ‘ used to describe the 4th Industrial Revolution in the first sentence of this article. An interesting example is the field of ‘ medical imaging’. Whether it be traditional X-rays, ultrasound, CT-scan, MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) or OCT (Optical Coherence Tomography), they are good examples. They all begin with a phenomenon of Physics, the properties of the biological systems and information processing of the images using Machine learning with Convolution Neural Networks. Clearly cognitive Flexibility is a required attribute of a professional in medical imaging.

In this age of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, while computers can do the repetitive calculations and robots can do repetitive tasks, it is the human mind with cognitive Flexibility that will imagine different possibilities and frameworks. Choosing an appropriate algorithm from the numerous that are available, applying the right knowledge representation from the numerous possibilities are critical. Cognitive inflexibility on the other hand is to keep insisting on trying to do something that is clearly wrong or inappropriate. Our educational system in its reluctance to change the examination pattern and in continuing to ban the mobile phone in classrooms rather than using them to enhance the learning experience is an indicator not only of cognitive inflexibility but of obstinacy arising from the delusions of authority.

The skill of cognitive Flexibility marked an important transition from the skill set of the year 2015 to the skill set of year 2020. It is just about one year for 2020 to arrive and two years for it to be gone. The new National Policy On education has now been in deliberation for almost four years. Further procrastination will be extremely harmful.

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