Classrooms as Think Tanks
Part 2: Greasing the Wheels of Cognitive Flexibility
I’m guilty of having spent a lot of time in my English class teaching students how to dig in to a particular stance and set conclusions. There were lessons on good thesis statements, on finding evidence that would support that thesis, and even lessons on how to refute opposing ideas. I’m not at all against developing a good argument, but I’ve learned that for a thinking classroom to be productive, I need students to be able to consider multiple perspectives rather than dig in to a singular stance.
My realization that I was over-focusing on a fixed type of thinking came when I was doing an activity with a senior English class. I’d asked them to develop an argument for a fictional property company that had a rental division and a mortgage division. This company was deciding which division to close, and the students had been hired to develop a pitch about whether it would be better to rent or to own a house so the company could decide where to spend their money. They chose which division they would work for, and then brainstormed ideas and developed their stance.
Twenty minutes into class, I told them they were being switched to the other division and would need to gather evidence for the opposite stance. There were groans. As I walked around asking students how it felt to be switched to the other division, I had responses like “I feel like that work we did was for nothing” and “It’s hard” and even a dramatic “This hurts!”. I then spoke to one boy in my class who was consistently achieving level 2 or 3 on assignments. What did he say? “It’s no big deal. You just have to be flexible.”
When I looked back at my most negative responses, I realized they were the highest flyers in my class. This made me ask some difficult questions: What type of thinking was I valuing in my classroom? How was it that my most cognitively flexible student was achieving so far below my least cognitively flexible students? Was my class rewarding students who could think in innovative ways, or students who followed instructions well?
Thus began my quest to help students let go of the right answer and the singular stance.
There are two activities I use at the start of a semester to grease the wheels of students’ cognitive flexibility. One shows the students how our brain defaults into familiar paths, and the second shows them how fruitful and fun it is to be cognitively flexible.
Activity One: The Stroop Test – The Struggle is Real!
In 1935, John Ridley Stroop published a paper based on three different experiments called “Studies of Interference in Serial Verbal Reactions” in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. In one of the experiments, he asked participants to tell him what colour a word was written in rather than what the letters of the word spelled. For instance, the word might have been BLUE, but if the ink was red, the correct answer would be RED. I put this test up on the screen and asked students to try to read only the colours and not the words. Try it yourself with the image below.
As you can see, this task takes a lot of concentration! Why is this? Naming colours should be easy, but what interferes with this seemingly simple task is the well-ingrained pathway in the brain that privileges reading words over naming colours.
It’s important to show students that our brains have default thinking patterns, and breaking those patterns is challenging. Considering ideas in opposition to your default thinking takes commitment and it takes effort. The Stroop Test allows students to feel the effort needed to think in a new way. Even better, if you repeat the test a few times, students tend to improve their ability to read the colours, so they also learn a valuable lesson: cognitive flexibility is a skill that can be developed.
Activity Two: Finding The Value in a Bad Idea
The next step is to show how useful cognitive flexibility is for finding new solutions. One of my favourite principles of Knowledge Building is the concept that every idea is improvable, yet it is not easy to convince students that their barely-formed thought is worth sharing in class, and I’ve spent many years watching students resist speaking up for fear that they were going down the wrong path. This one activity that I learned from the Rotman I-Think Initiative is a fantastic way to help demonstrate what we can gain if we resist dismissing half-formed or even opposing ideas. It is called “Finding the Value in a Bad Idea,” and here is how it works.
First, divide your students into teams. I suggest strategically building the teams to enhance idea diversity. Next, choose a topic for which you would like to generate a list of worst possible ideas. I’ve used the following options with success:
- Worst idea for a final exam
- Worst idea for the design of a classroom
- Worst idea for a school dance
- Worst idea for a video game
- Worst idea for a birthday party
Ask students to shout out their “worst ideas” until you’ve created a list of 15 – 20 options.
Next, ask each team to choose one of the bad ideas, and brainstorm together why it is, in fact, the best idea for the topic. I provide 10 – 15 minutes to allow students to first brainstorm the benefits they are finding in the bad idea, and then figure out how to collectively pitch it to the class.
Finally, enjoy the pitches! The students really get into their bad ideas, and you’ll find they are quite compelling in their arguments. Once everyone has presented, it’s important to ask the class to reflect on what this one activity taught them about cognitive flexibility.
The first thing I love about “Finding the Value in a Bad Idea” is that it’s fun! The students start giggling the second they realize how absurd their bad ideas can be, and this connects playfulness with stretching our thinking.
What else do I love? There is so much creativity involved in imagining bad ideas. When you ask for the right answer or a good idea, students (and adults!) can shut down, but ask a group the wrong way to solve a problem, and you’ll have a list that goes on forever.
Lastly, this activity as an absolute touchstone lesson in cognitive flexibility because each group, at some point, suddenly realizes that their bad idea – an idea they would have normally dismissed – is actually a fantastic idea. They gain insight from exploring the wrong direction that they just wouldn’t find from only considering good ideas, and they gain confidence to share their thinking because they are no longer paralyzed by the tyranny of the right answer.
I find that after doing this activity, there is a culture shift in class. They know that wrong answers can provide just as much insight as right answers, so there is a greater willingness among students to take a risk and offer up their best thinking in class. I also notice that they lean on each other more to help generate ideas. One person’s thought can spur on another person’s thought, and this interdependence is something I want to encourage for our think tank.
After these two activities, we’re on the road to building cognitive flexibility: we have a way to talk about our thinking ruts, and we are a bit more comfortable about shifting our thinking to consider rather than dismiss opposing ideas that arise.
A Last Word on Stance
The students also learn from these two activities who I am going to be as both a guide of, and participant in the thinking classroom. I am definitely not positioned as the expert or the holder of knowledge: I struggle with the Stroop Test as much as they do! My jobs are to model what it sounds like to recognize when I’m in a thinking rut, to demonstrate my comfort not drawing set conclusions, and to help push students’ thinking when they get stuck.
And if you’re still worried about those thesis statements? Trust me, they will be so much more complex, insightful, and surprising if you take the time to build cognitive flexibility at the beginning of a semester.
Jennifer Warren has been teaching what she thinks is the most important subject in high school – English – for 22 years at the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board. Always passionate about building capacity with her students and with other teachers, Jennifer has built a career engaging with new pedagogies with excitement, wonder, and a sense of play. She has been a department head since 2001, and also supported the growth of pre-service teachers at Brock University for ten years. For the past two years, Jennifer has been a co-facilitator of I-Think’s Integrative Thinking Practicum for educators. Although her curriculum goal is always to build students’ confidence and competence in terms of literacy and communication skills, her true passion is helping students become cognitively flexible critical thinkers who have the skills to embrace complexity and imagine innovative solutions to the world’s current and future problems by thoughtfully seeking out and engaging with multiple perspectives. Follow her on Twitter @warrenhwdsb