School children

Cambridge PhD Student Stephen Bayley considers the role that education systems can play in ensuring that children have the skills they need to thrive in the 21st century.  

As international education and development professionals, we’re all about change. 

Changing school systems to include and empower girls, disabled learners and other marginalised groups.  Changing teachers to practise more child-centred approaches in their classrooms.  Changing pupils to expand their minds, broaden their horizons and enrich their lives.  

At the macro-level, schooling also plays a key role in shaping and changing populations into productive and creative workforces, tolerant communities, and socially-responsible citizens.  This is why governments around the world invest in education as a public good. 

Always a change for the better?

However, we know that not all change is necessarily positive.  

Recent protests have highlighted the threat of irreversible climate change and the devastation caused by increasingly extreme weather patterns.  We’ve seen parallel images of floods wreaking havoc in one corner of the world, and droughts in another.  And we’ve read bleak warnings about the likely effects of a 1.5-2 ºC temperature rise on natural ecosystems and human lives, especially the disproportionate burden on the most poor and vulnerable. 

Beyond the climate, other global changes have presented valuable opportunities but may also require a shift in how we think, work and live.  The explosive growth of technology has overhauled most aspects of modern life (how we communicate, access information and manage our finances) and has created new sectors and livelihoods.  But this trend seems to have come with certain costs and risks: job losses in other areas, internet fraud, data insecurity, and possibly even adverse mental health consequences.

Further, widespread population movements will result in increased contextual fluidity and cultural exchange.  With an estimated 272 million international migrants worldwide, communities on all sides must find new ways to live together and adapt their behaviours to accommodate a growing diversity of languages, customs and practices.   

Changing our attitudes, habits and behaviours in these ever-shifting landscapes is not straightforward.  At a grand scale, many of our decisions are influenced by factors such as politics, religion, the media and the law.  But education can also play a role in shaping our choices, guiding us towards constructive, strategic and long-term responses, rather than reactive, emotional and short-term ones.  

Behavioural change theories can provide some insight into these processes.  On one side, they offer frameworks to analyse the incentives and abilities that drive behaviours at all levels in an education system, from planners to parents, from teachers to pupils.  On the other side, they can help us to understand the role of schooling to support directed behaviour change, both at the individual and the social, collective level. 

The COM-B model is one such theory and was initially developed to improve health and nutrition interventions.  This approach identifies three components that influence behaviour:

  • Capability — the psychological and physical skills needed to perform the behaviour;
  • Opportunity — the lack of external environmental constraints to prevent the behaviour; and
  • Motivation — the intention to undertake the behaviour.

Within these components, Capability holds a particular relevance for education systems.  Indeed, basic schooling lays important foundations for pupils’ initial capabilities, later learning experiences and lifelong skills development.  Education can thereby support not just an individual’s ability to enact specific changes, but also catalyse wider capacity for personal growth, creativity and transformation.  However, this then begs questions around if and how schools are fostering children’s capabilities for adaptation and behavioural change.

Fostering change in schools

At a planning level, many education systems around the world have long recognised and promoted skills for change and adaptability, such as creativity and problem solving.  Indeed, a 2013 review of curricula in 88 countries found that problem solving and creativity ranked third and fourth in terms of cross-curricula competences, behind only social and communication skills.  Whether these aspirations translate into classrooms practices is however an altogether different matter.

For pupils themselves, starting school for the first time forces them to change and adjust to the new environment [1].  Away from home, they have to adapt to new faces, adults and other children, people beyond their nuclear or extended family, perhaps from different backgrounds, ethnicities and religions.   

Factors within the classroom also test and exercise pupils’ capabilities for change.  Children learn to wait their turn for the teacher’s attention and to put up their hands instead of shouting out the answer [2].  They switch between topics and activities, from maths to reading, science to art, from lessons to break time and back again.  And at the end of the year, if all goes well, they progress and transition into the next grade for a fresh set of challenges.     

Certain other school characteristics might also affect children’s capacities to adapt to change.  For example, in multilingual contexts, teachers may use more than one language and pupils might have to switch quickly and without warning, back and forth within the same lesson.  Play-based approaches can also offer safe spaces and opportunities for children to improvise, explore and adapt to imaginary scenarios or situations [3].

In light of these factors, it would seem that schooling appears to offer numerous and diverse opportunities for children to practise adapting to different settings.  But do these opportunities go far enough?  And how would we actually know? 

Understanding and measuring capability for change

Theories and measures from child psychology might offer some possible answers.  Cognitive flexibility in particular could provide a basis for understanding and measuring children’s capabilities to innovate and handle change.  Leading neuroscientist Adele Diamond defines it as 'creatively "thinking outside the box", seeing anything from different perspectives, and quickly and flexibly adapting to changed circumstances' [4].  More broadly, it sits within a set of basic skills through which children learn to control their own behaviour and orientate themselves to complete specific tasks or achieve certain goals. 

With links to particular regions of children’s brain development, cognitive flexibility potentially provides a more scientific basis for examining learners’ capacity for change.  By contrast, important skills like creativity and problem solving tend to be more complex, contested and culturally-bound, and arguably harder to translate across different contexts [5].  

Research on cognitive flexibility from childhood and into adolescence could therefore offer valuable insights into how we can best support optimum, continuing adaptability.  Using psychological measures with young children could help us better understand the key environmental influences, such as family caregiving, stimulation or nutrition, while their brains are still forming and naturally more malleable.  These approaches among school-aged children could help to shed light on the most impactful educational factors and how learners’ capacities for change interact with their other school outcomes.  Even among adolescents, research on flexibility and adaptability could offer benefits by charting their transition into responsible and productive adulthood, whether this comprises employment, enterprise or higher levels of education. 

The rise of international measures

At present, relatively little is truly known about cognitive flexibility development around the world.  Numerous studies in North America and Europe have researched learners in wealthy countries, but children in lower-income settings, many of whom struggle to complete even basic schooling, have been largely underrepresented.  

Some recent studies have nevertheless started to plug this gap.  International academics and organisations have examined children’s flexibility in countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America.  For example, a 2018 study in Kenya by RTI International used tablets enabled with EF Touch to assess 3-6 year olds on games that required them to switch between different rules and dimensions, and thereby explored their cognitive flexibility.  

However, several of the major instruments used for assessing young learners in diverse contexts worldwide stop short of including measures for children’s flexibility.  In particular, the Measuring Early Learning Quality and Outcomes (MELQO) tool designed with support from institutions including UNESCO and UNICEF, and the International Development and Early Learning Assessment (IDELA) created by Save the Children examine various holistic domains of school readiness such as self-regulation and socio-emotional development, but neither investigates learners’ capabilities to handle and adapt to change.  Perhaps future iterations of MELQO and IDELA will incorporate them into the mix?

Being the change

Mahatma Gandhi is widely credited for counselling that we must be the change we wish to see in the world.  At a time of global challenges and existential risks, this advice seems no less pertinent today.  

Questions remain however about the kinds of change we need, including more or less technology, or international responses versus home-grown solutions.  Education systems alone cannot hope to offer all the answers but they can play a critical role in equipping today’s learners with important capabilities to create, innovate and adapt to the changing world around them.  

Research in this space also remains underdeveloped.  Gaps in global evidence call into question how much we really know about children’s development and the true effects of culture and context.  Whether psychology and neuroscience also represent the best approaches for mapping childhood continues to be a live and valid discussion.  However, big changes often start with small steps, and the classroom is arguably a good place to take them.  


[1] Yeniad, N., Malda, M., Mesman, J., van IJzendoorn, M. H., Emmen, R. A. G., & Prevoo, M. J. L. (2014). Cognitive flexibility children across the transition to school: A longitudinal study. Cognitive Development, 31, 35–47: 

[2] McCoy, D. C. (2019). Measuring Young Children’s Executive Function and Self-Regulation in Classrooms and Other Real-World Settings. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 22(1), 63–74:

[3] Diamond, A., & Lee, K. (2011). Interventions shown to aid executive function development in children 4 to 12 years old. Science, 333(6045), 959–964.

[4] Diamond, A. (2014). Want to Optimize Executive Functions and Academic Outcomes?: Simple, Just Nourish the Human Spirit. In Minnesota Symposia on Child Psychology (Vol. 37, p. 205): 

[5] Bayley, S. (2015) Education for enterprise and empowerment: The importance of cognitive skills for sustainable livelihoods and better futures: