Cognitive Flexibility in Trying Times

Cognitive Flexibility in Trying Times

We are living in an age of polarized perspectives. Whether we are talking about politics, race, or public health, the news and social media are awash in people airing strongly held convictions on what is right. In a world where people splinter away from those with differing viewpoints, we can teach our students the tenets of cognitive flexibility to foster resilience and hope.

What Is Cognitive Flexibility?

Cognitive flexibility is “the ability to think flexibly and to shift perspectives and approaches easily.” In each facet of our lives, we can become set in our ways, clinging to opinions and patterns of thinking that affirm our prior experience and validate our reality. In truth, each individual holds their own version of reality rooted in different truths that inevitably fail to match our own. When our truth doesn’t match the perspective of others, the results range from funny to downright frustrating.

Cognitive flexibility as a concept most easily applies to situations in which we are actively problem-solving, such as compiling sources for a group project, shifting between types of information, or even hiking up a mountain. We can also apply cognitive flexibility to our wider interactions with others.

Right now many of the challenges we face are presented in black-and-white terms. The sharp contrast may lead to feelings of hopelessness and despair in our students and ourselves. As educators, we can model and explicitly teach strategies for cognitive flexibility to keep hope alive.

Identify Obstacles and Solutions

One approach is to teach pathways thinking as part of goal setting. When students set goals, they learn that identifying and overcoming obstacles is a natural part of goal setting. When discussing current events in the classroom, students will probably be able to identify numerous obstacles. As a class, brainstorm various ways to overcome these obstacles. This exercise will help students feel more hopeful and will cultivate a flexible approach to understanding current challenges and solutions.

Be a Role Model

As teachers, we can also model our own cognitive flexibility. Rather than pretending we are unscathed by the many challenges we face, we can show how we acknowledge and address negative experiences. As our students get older and prepare to take on positions of leadership, they benefit from role models who demonstrate persistence and resilience in the face of adversity. Consider ways that you have adapted over the past months and think about how to share your newfound strategies with your students.

While certain realities are non-negotiable, there are still opportunities for helping students analyze and interpret the various facets and perspectives that surround an issue.

  • Iris Jeffries, SMARTS Intern