Using Cognitive Flexibility to be a Better Educator

Lindsay Rayner
Lindsay Rayner
Middle School Principal; M.A. in Educational Leadership

What is Cognitive Flexibility?

Cognitive flexibility is an executive brain function that encompasses the ability to think about multiple concepts simultaneously or to switch from thinking about one concept to thinking about another.

Cognitive flexibility allows us to form new thoughts and beliefs when we receive new information. It’s opposite, cognitive rigidity, causes us to hold on to outmoded ideas, even when new information proves those ideas wrong. People who are cognitively flexible are often described as open-minded, empathetic, and thoughtful. To grow as people and educators, it is important to flex our cognitive muscles.

There are two broad types of cognitive flexibility: task switching and cognitive shifting. Task switching involves an unconscious shift in attention. This sort of cognitive flexibility allows people to shift attention from one task to another rapidly and efficiently. Cognitive shifting is the ability to consciously redirect attention to something different. The person makes a decision to change mental habits.

Why is Cognitive Flexibility Important for Educators?

Educators are called upon to reflect on our practices to decide what works and what doesn’t. This means putting aside ego and really paying attention to the evidence in front of us. If formative assessments show us that a lesson is ineffective, rather than continuing on, an effective teacher seeks out new methods of instruction.

Cognitive flexibility is also important in our social interactions with students. Rather than react with negativity to the student who is unmotivated, a cognitively flexible educator will look for the root causes of the student’s behaviors and work to find solutions. For example, students may lack motivation because they don’t see the applications of our subject’s connection to real life. That is where an effective teacher might implement project-based learning or at least offer examples of the subject’s relevance.

Moreover, our students often come to us with baggage that affects their behavior at school. A flexible educator reacts with empathy rather than judgment in these situations. They try to see the situation for what it is, rather than what they wish it would be. Some students simply aren’t going to do homework. Maybe they don’t have a good place to study at home. Maybe they have to babysit younger siblings every evening. Or maybe they just don’t feel like it. Our job as educators is to be problem solvers and try to work with the situation rather than against it. Sometimes this means adjusting our own expectations.

Some may call this “lowering our standards”, but I maintain that it means working smarter not harder. Despite the number of studies done, there still doesn’t appear to be a strong link between homework and student achievement. So why do so many educators bang their heads against the wall trying to get students to complete it? A better solution involves a cognitive shift to realize that good classroom instruction has far more impact than homework completion. A student who learns how to divide fractions is a student who learns how to divide fractions, whether he completed homework or not.

Ways to Improve Cognitive Flexibility

  1. Change Your Routine. Every once in a while try teaching things in a different order or try changing up groupings. Routines are wonderful but also fun to break sometimes.
  2. Have Adventures. Travel somewhere new or try a new activity. Doing something new reminds us how much we haven’t experienced.
  3. Burst your Social Bubble. Sometimes we get a little too comfortable with the people we know. Chances are good your closest friends come from similar socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds. Make an effort to introduce yourself to someone who doesn’t look or act like you.
  4. Show What You Know. You just read a great new book about climate change? Find a way to incorporate your new knowledge into an engaging science lesson.
  5. Check Yourself. When you’re feeling judgmental about the way a student acts, dresses, looks, or talks, ask yourself why you feel that way. Is your logic flawed? Are you harboring beliefs that are false and unhelpful? As a human, of course you sometimes are. The key is to apply cognitive flexibility to overcoming your prejudices by challenging them.

When we develop our own cognitive flexibility it is much easier to teach our students to do the same.

graduate program favicon

Looking for a graduate program?