On Cognitive Flexibility, Learning Agility and Plasticine!

Alex Gray, writing on the recent The World Economic Forum posted a slide of the importance of cognitive flexibility, which we could define as the ability to think about different concepts simultaneously and to be able to switch from one pattern of thinking to another.

In her post from early January on the future of education, Heather McGowan also advocates for learning agility, which I take as another form of flexibility or plasticity in one’s approach to learning. Rather than learning as a formal collection of concepts and theories, as in a diploma or degree program, learning agility is “the ability to learn, adapt, and apply in quick cycles.”

McGowan develops this notion in response to the growing threat/opportunity of automation and other technologies, including machine learning, which is transforming our concepts of knowledge and education as well as, I would suggest, the qualities of humanness.

In the talent management literature, learning agility has further been described as “the willingness and ability to learn from experience, and subsequently apply that learning to perform successfully under new or first-time conditions” (Lombardo & Eichinger, 2000 in DeMeuse et al, 2010). In this notion, learning is tied to experience and the agility is the ability to respond to a new situation by applying what one has learning to that new situation. As DeMeuse and his co-authors argue, “People who are highly learning agile continuously seek out new challenges, actively seek feedback from others to grow and develop, tend to self-reflect, and evaluate their experiences and draw practical conclusions” (2010: 120).

Great ideas, but how do you communicate that to learners you encounter in classrooms and workshops in a more tangible way? One way, which I used a few years ago, when I was taking a course on Presentational Skills and had to devise a persuasive topic for a workshop, was to use plasticine as a analogy and tangible teaching tool. My workshop was to persuade my colleagues as to why workers needed to embrace a ‘plasticine mindset’ in order to find a job in an economy in which growing technologies, outsourcing, automation, and manufacturing decline are all features.

Why plasticine? Well, it is flexible. It is highly responsive to change. It can take on many physical forms and could be used to symbolize an experience. It’s not a perfect analogy; plasticine cannot think (although sometimes it feels like it has mind of its own :) ) nor can it reflect. Yet, it can capture the notion of flexibility and agility, increasingly key concepts in leadership, management, education, organizational behaviour and change, in a remarkable facile way.


De Meuse, K.P., Dai, G., & Hallenbeck, G. S. (2010). Learning agility: a construct whose time has come, Consulting Counselling Journal: Practice and Research, 62, 2, 119-130.

Lombardo, M. M., & Eichinger, R. W. (2000). High potentials as high learners. Human Resource Management39, 321–330.

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