Flexible Thinking

By Jeremy Cunningham
May 16th, 2016

As an educator, a father, and a human being, I am always confronting change.  I have often wondered what information, skill, talent, or perspective I need to learn to be successful and find contentment with the continually shifting state of life.  A PBS Parents article by Katie Hurley focuses on educating children on cognitive flexibility.  As I read Flexible Thinking: How to Encourage Kids to Go With the Flow, I realized the tips can apply to many educators as we face the dynamic landscape of ed-tech.

The article starts off with an anecdote about a boy charging out to recess to play soccer only to find the game has been changed to kickball.  He is unable to cope with the change due to his cognitive inflexibility and spends the rest of recess sulking.  How can this apply to education?

There is no greater divide between perception and reality, between training and practice, between expectation and realization, then in education.  The first few years of teaching are a revelation to theory learned in the classroom.  Furthermore, the job is so dependent on variables like institution, student body, faculty group, and even more basic things like time of year and time of class.  Technology has emphasized this chasm even more as core structures and assumptions are challenged.

When a teacher approaches this dynamic landscape and it does not match expectations, the natural reaction is to withdraw.  I can admit my own periods of sulking as I charged forward with an idea or expectation only to find that it doesn’t fit, needs to be adapted, or is just a flat out unworkable project.  Hurley provides the petulant child, and in turn we petulant adults, with tips for change.

She begins by advising to try bending the rules.  Bending the rules in small activities allows thinkers to interact better with others and adapt to changing sets of expectations.  Educators can do the same.  Evaluate your classroom rules; think about why they exist, what assumptions they are based on, and even how long they have been the same.  Perhaps tweak one or two for a semester and see what happens.  This exercise can be a good practical change, but can also open you up to other, deeper types of change.  With tech challenging our most basic assumptions of classroom work, we can be sure that our spheres of control will be transformed as well.

Another suggestion is to “tweak the routine.”  I am certainly guilty of approaching classes with the exact same routine I have used in previous sessions.  I can justify my lack of change by saying “if it ain’t broke,” but it is more likely a case of “if I can cut down on my list of to-do’s.”  Tweaking our classroom routines is an extension of bending the rules.  It provides a practical way to exhibit our flexibility.  This practice may make us more flexible in our adoption of technology.  Or, more flexible as we face students whose expectations are completely different than our own.  Furthermore, the article states that “routines allow kids to know what comes next.”  This is the same for educators.  But the fact is, we don’t know what comes next.  Our classrooms and students are changing each and every year.  Trying new routines is a practical way of approaching each class fresh and throwing away our expectations of how things will go.

As I made these parallels, I considered how so many of us are children in this new digital age.  There is an inevitable disconnect between our expectations and our reality because the landscape is changing so rapidly.  I have been online for most of my life in one form or another, but I can barely understand some of the ideological and practical currents that are driving our world.  We could all heed the advice to become flexible thinkers because the only certainty in our world is that it will demand it.

To read the full article, click here.


About the Author:

Jeremy Cunningham

Jeremy Cunningham is a part-time instructor at Washtenaw Community College and Cleary University where he teaches composition and communication coursework. He also teaches English at Mason High School. He holds degrees in literature and education from Miami University, Eastern Michigan University, and Michigan State University. Outside of work, Jeremy dedicates his time to his wife, Darcie, and daughter, Ruby.

Add your opinion to the discussion.