Here are two questions for you.
1. What color is most typing paper?
2. What do cows drink?
Your first response offers a limited perspective.
Did you think white for the first question? Good! When answering the second question, you likely came up with the response of "milk." Most people do. However, you probably quickly realized that it’s not actually what you know to be true. That first response of "milk" is a reflection of the brain's successful pattern recognition for memory building. As a child, you had numerous experiences in which "cow, milk, and white" were experienced in a pattern together. Those repeated experiences made that memory strong and fast.
The reason for the fast, but incorrect response, is the brain's neuroplasticity. This neuroplasticity strengthens memory circuits, which hold related information that have been experienced together frequently in the past. Your brain repeatedly experienced the pattern of cow, milk, and white as a child, so your brain still holds that information together, allowing you to rapidly respond to the questions above.
Flexible thinking is the new smart.
As helpful as this rapid response to questions may seem, it can actually limit your child's development of expanded and creative thinking. In today's globalized world, flexible and creative thinking are extremely valuable. These are the “soft skills” you hear about—skills that employers are finding increasingly important.
The ability to memorize and repeat facts is no longer the standard for what’s considered “smart.” Children, now more than ever, need to go beyond that. They need to understand how to evaluate changing information, respond creatively when problems arise, and be prepared for the jobs and opportunities of the future. You can help your child build their brain’s control systems to resist jumping to an impulsive first response, and in turn, thrive in an ever-changing world.
How to Help Kids Build Cognitive Flexibility
Cognitive flexibility helps kids remain open and receptive to new experiences, multiple sources of information, a variety of interpretations, varied approaches to problems, and alternative points of view. Here are some suggestions to help build your kid's cognitive flexibility:
- Evaluate characters in books. While reading books, take the opportunity to think about the story beyond one perspective. You and your kidcan reflect on reasons why an “evil” character in a story might not be fully to blame or deserves sympathy. They can also provide alternative endings to stories. This helps kids resist their first response to the story or character as the only correct interpretation. And it helps to develop empathy and understanding of characters that aren’t so black and white.
- Imagine different possibilities. Encourage your child to give you several different interpretations of art, music, or even the shape of a cloud. Cartoons can provide opportunities for children to build cognitive flexibility, too. Ask, "Why do you think this cartoonist selected cows to be the talking animals with all the other animals silent?" Take kids to museums and explore different meanings behind the paintings and sculptures.
- Ask questions. When your children ask you questions, that is a great opportunity to flip the question back to them. After they share an idea, acknowledge it positively, and then say, "What else?" That phrase, "What else?" can be the most powerful builder of flexible thinking. If they are bothered by an assignment, rules in sports, or other things they consider to be "unfair," talk to them about why they feel that way.
- Explore different problem-solving methods. Cognitive flexibility in math and science includes being open to multiple interpretations, even when asked to respond with only one. Remind your kid that there might be two ways to solve the problem, draw the graph, or form a hypothesis.
- Go one step further. While discussing the daily news or what they’re learning in history class, provide opportunities for children to go beyond the first “interpretation” that comes to mind. Instead of stopping at one opinion or thought, push them to keep thinking. They might share alternatives to fighting to resolve historical disputes, or express opinions about explorers meeting the indigenous inhabitants on their journeys.
Consider the impact your efforts will have on your kid's tolerance, ethics, and citizenship far beyond their childhood. The leaders and innovators of the future will be those who are comfortable with new experiences and unfamiliar customs, open to variations of opinions and interpretations, willing to take on alternative points of view and multiple approaches to problem solving, and excited by creative innovation.
And remember, no matter what our brain tries to tell us, cows drink water.