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Creating Classrooms for Change: Developing cognitive flexibility in schools in Rwanda

This research looked at how schools in Rwanda foster students’ skills for adaptability - their capacity to create, innovate and adjust to shifting circumstances. It uses the psychological lens of cognitive flexibility. Findings highlight teachers’ activities to make lessons more practical and participatory, but also the ongoing obstacles posed by overcrowded classes, resource constraints, inadequate training and limited contact time.

We were curious about… how teachers in Rwanda foster cognitive flexibility

We wanted to understand more about practices in Rwandan schools to support learners’ skills for adaptability.

During this study, Dr Stephen Bayley used cognitive flexibility as a framework to understand how children develop the capacity to respond to the many different challenges of modern life and the changing world. ‘Cognitive flexibility’ describes a set of related skills that enable us to think creatively ‘outside the box’, look at things from different perspectives and adapt quickly to changing circumstances.

To date, research on such skills has focused on learners in high-income contexts. This study set out to understand how schools and teachers in Rwanda nurture cognitive flexibility in the classroom.

And so we did… interviews and observations in Rwandan schools

During the research, Stephen conducted interviews with teachers and head teachers in several government schools around the Rwandan capital, Kigali. He also observed English, maths and social studies lessons to explore what the teachers were doing in practice.

We learned that… several approaches help to develop children’s adaptability but these can be difficult to implement.

Stephen’s findings identify several approaches that may help build the children’s adaptability. For example, teachers used practical exercises and extra-curricular activities to encourage learners to think outside the box, or at least outside the classroom. Group work and tasks enabled children to access different perspectives, while regular switches between language and activities within the same lesson could inadvertently foster their adaptive abilities.

However, multiple barriers impeded teachers’ efforts. Large classes of up to 65 children per room combined with short school days limited their contact time with individual learners. Teachers also reported inadequate resources, such as textbooks, as hindering their work.

The paper concludes with reflections on the potential value of child psychology and neuroscience in understanding pupils’ learning in more diverse settings. In particular, Stephen argues that cognitive flexibility provides a useful lens for both researchers and education policymakers to understand, measure and ultimately support children’s holistic skills for 21st-century life.

This research was conducted by Dr Stephen Bayley as part of his PhD studies.

The paper was published in the International Journal of Educational Research in 2024. The full article can be found here.