For Teachers

Cognitive Flexibility and Adaptive Teaching: How Mental Flexibility Makes You a Stronger Educator

By Ashley Watters November 5, 2019

Teachers are experts at thinking on their feet. They have to be. When a teachable moment arises, educators are there to grasp it firmly with both hands, adapt to the cadence of the classroom, and insert it seamlessly into the day’s lessons. This flexibility is a true asset and a commonplace occurrence for most educators.

But the modern teacher isn’t faced with only teachable moments. Sometimes, classrooms become the setting for situations that draw away from a positive learning experience or that are draining in nature. When this happens, it can be best to exercise cognitive flexibility.

What is cognitive flexibility and how do you recognize the presence of mental flexibility?

Cognitive flexibility is the ability to transition from one topic or concept to another. Flexible thinking provides the foundation for creative brain processes. When you exercise mental flexibility, you are able to approach a problem from multiple perspectives and contemplate possible outcomes to arrive at the best possible solution.

Those with healthy cognitive flexibility are often considered to be more open-minded because they are able to evaluate the benefits of new input and update old belief systems when offered a fresh perspective.

According to Mental Health Daily, other common characteristics of those with a high level of cognitive flexibility include “superior comprehension and fluency associated with reading, higher levels of fluid intelligence, and an expanded sense of awareness.” This kind of flexibility is particularly valuable in the classroom.

Why cognitive flexibility is important for educators

Teachers are often masterful task switchers and particularly attuned to adaptation given the fast-paced nature of the classroom. But even seasoned educators can use cognitive flexibility to help tackle difficult situations in the classroom.

Modern classrooms are diverse settings populated with students from various backgrounds, cultures, ethnicities, socioeconomic factors, and belief systems. The intermingling of so many different ideological structures can sometimes create dissonance or disruption and, when emotions run high, it’s sometimes best to move on from painful or dramatic incidents. Teachers who exercise cognitive flexibility are able to divert students’ attention and their own from an unhealthy situation to a more appropriate one.

Developing a growth mindset and practicing flexible thinking can also offer significant value for teachers when it comes to facing new workplace-related challenges. Curricula change, standardized testing rules and questions are consistently being revised, and new problems arise regularly. Consider the issues presented by cyberbullying, gender identity, and climate change. These issues present very real predicaments, but were largely unknown 20 years ago. Educators with strong cognitive flexibility can adapt to new standards fluidly.

One final benefit for teachers is the ability to move past a difficult experience. Educators may face emotional difficulties such as student tragedy, administrative upheaval, or personal trauma. Because teaching is not a profession that allows for flying under the wire, mental flexibility can help teachers face the classroom following a difficult experience.

How to improve your cognitive flexibility

Flexible thinking can be a true asset in the classroom and can be developed through particular activities. Use the following exercises to help improve your cognitive flexibility.

Seek out friendships with people from various backgrounds. Mental flexibility comes from the ability to see situations from multiple perspectives. In order to expand that ability, consider befriending others that come from different cultural backgrounds. Understanding the viewpoints of others may help you gain a fresh outlook on any given situation.

Mix up your routine. Flexibility of the mind can be gained by altering what might be rigid in nature. One thing that we tend to stick to is our routines. To practice cognitive flexibility, modify your established routines to see how the variations affect your perspective.

Try something new to you. Enlist the help of a friend, take a class, join a group, find a new hobby…these are all ways you can expand your mind and open it to new possibilities. New experiences help transform our thoughts and beliefs and offer a fresh outlook on old problems.

Change the scenery. Move around and put yourself into new settings to keep your mind from becoming rigid. Get some coffee, ask your colleague to take a walk, or visit a neighboring class. Getting yourself out of familiarity will help expand your mental flexibility.

Develop new lessons for old curriculum. Challenge yourself to develop new methods for teaching the tried and true. By altering your approach to a concept, you will force your mind to think of updated ways to reach students which may spark previously looked over discussions and new teachable moments.

Step outside of your educational comfort zone. Undertake something that is outside of your area of comfort. Take on a coaching position, join a new committee, or oversee a student club. Do something that will let you learn from your students as much as they learn from you.

Ultimately, cognitive flexibility is an expansion of the ability to adapt to classroom flux. Improving your mental flexibility will help you become a better educator while adopting a healthy work/life balance that is necessary for both your growth and sanity.

Ashley gained a passion for all things writing by spending years teaching a high school English class. She founded Contenthusiast so that she could spend her days hovering over a keyboard. When she isn’t writing, you can find her traveling with family or buried in a book.

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