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Education for a Changing World: A Mixed-Methods Study of Cognitive Flexibility in Rwandan Primary Schools



Change log



In 2016, Rwanda followed the example of numerous African countries and introduced a competence-based curriculum for all levels of its education system (Mushimijimana, 2016; Ngendahayo & Askell-Williams, 2016). Such curriculum explicitly promotes skills for adaptability like creativity, innovation and problem solving, so as to prepare the Rwandan population for an uncertain future and a changing world (Rwanda Education Board & MINEDUC, 2015). However, little is currently known about how these competencies improve, and especially in low-resource educational settings. This thesis therefore aims to address this gap by examining the measurement and development of Rwandan pupils’ skills for adaptability, their relationship with other learning outcomes and the current practices that may aid their growth in public primary schools.

To achieve this, the research adopted a psychological lens to focus on the development of Rwandan children’s cognitive flexibility, which Diamond (2014) describes as “creatively ‘thinking outside the box’, seeing anything from different perspectives, and quickly and flexibly adapting to changed circumstances” (p. 206). The empirical study also drew on theories concerning both educational quality and child development to frame the inquiry, specifically the Implementing Education Quality in Low-Income Countries (EdQual) model (Tikly, 2011) and Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological systems theory (Bronfenbrenner, 1979, 1986).

The mixed-methods research design included fieldwork conducted over 4-5 months during 2018 in four public primary schools serving low-income households in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. The quantitative component of the study comprised capturing data from a cross-section of 306 pupils randomly selected from age-in-grade learners in both Primary 1 and 4 classes. Each child was assessed one-to-one in their mother tongue by a trained Rwandan enumerator using adapted versions of two established psychological tests to measure their cognitive flexibility. Pupils were also assessed for their broader psychological development (executive function), non-verbal reasoning and basic literacy skills. In addition, they were briefly surveyed with age-appropriate tools to ascertain information concerning their home situation and prior schooling experiences.

Following conclusion of the pupil assessments, semi-structured interviews and observations were undertaken with head and classroom teachers to address the qualitative aspect of the research. In particular, the interviews aimed to explore teachers’ perceptions and attitudes regarding pupils’ cognitive competencies, while the lesson observations looked to identify existing practices that could enhance learners’ cognitive flexibility.

Statistical analyses in Stata revealed that both measures of cognitive flexibility showed good reliability and a significant correlation with medium effect size. Learners in Primary 4 performed significantly better than those in Primary 1 but, given the cross-sectional nature of the research, the cause of this difference and whether it results from formal education or other factors remains unknown. Disaggregating the data by cohort, Primary 4 children from single-parent families scored significantly higher than those from two-parent households and there was some, albeit limited, evidence that could suggest higher cognitive flexibility among children from poorer households. Regarding wider learning outcomes, pupils’ cognitive flexibility significantly predicted their non-verbal reasoning and executive function, and vice versa. Contrary to wider literature, however, there was limited evidence of any significant association between their cognitive flexibility and their reading skills.

Qualitative data from the interviews were analysed in NVivo and revealed that teachers perceived skills for adaptability as conferring a mix of individual and collective benefits, to build originality, self-reliance and independence in learners’ everyday lives, and more responsible citizens who can contribute to Rwanda’s national development. Within the classroom, teachers used group-based activities to encourage collaboration and a range of techniques, learning aids and materials, often sourced from their own homes, to impress on children the practical relevance of their education. Frequent switching between English and Kinyarwanda in lessons might also inadvertently nurture pupils’ cognitive flexibility, albeit at a possible cost to their wider learning.

The findings of the study provide a valuable contribution to growing global research on children’s psychological development in lower-income settings. Using mixed methods among different stakeholders in several schools also offered multiple perspectives for better understanding the processes through which learners acquire and build important cognitive competencies, not least their creativity, innovation and problem solving. By way of limitations, the use of cross-sectional rather than longitudinal data precluded any claims around causality and future research could examine any possible interactions with the pupils’ numeracy skills.

In conclusion, this thesis draws on both quantitative and qualitative data to argue that child psychology provides an important basis to understand, research and foster learners’ 21st century competencies, even in lower-income countries where evidence remains scant. Specifically, it proposes that cognitive flexibility, the capacity to think creatively, adapt quickly and adopt different perspectives, presents a valuable framework for nurturing essential skills that offer wide socio-economic benefits in settings like Rwanda. Implications from the study include increasing pre-primary schooling and expanding the resources, planning and training available to implement the new curriculum effectively and thereby support children’s more diverse educational competencies. Similarly, the thesis identifies the need to maximise learner-teacher continuity and pedagogies like group-based exercises for pupils to leave school equipped with the skills to think ‘outside the box’, understand different points of view and adapt for life in the rapidly changing world.





Sabates Aysa, Ricardo


Cognitive flexibility, Rwanda, Adaptability, 21st century skills, Primary education, Creativity, Problem solving


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
ESRC (1797470)
Economic and Social Research Council (award ES/J500033/1) and Trinity College, Cambridge