Deborah Eyre, Founder and Chair at High Performance Learning, discuses the value of open-mindedness and its impact on cognitive success.

Sitting in the exam you turn over the paper and the question is not quite what you expected, or what you were taught. You don’t know how to approach it. Panic! Many of us have no doubt been there – this scenario occurs frequently in assessments and the most successful students are the ones who can overcome the panic and navigate a way forward. So how do they do it? Well, it’s a combination of intellectual confidence and open-mindedness, two of the High Performance Learning key competencies.

Of course, all schools are keen to develop students who are tolerant and socially responsible and this is one important aspect of open-mindedness. But open-mindedness is also key to cognitive success and so its systematic development serves multiple purposes.

Currently research conceptualises open-minded cognition as a cognitive style that influences how individuals select and process information. An open-minded cognitive style is marked by willingness to consider a variety of intellectual perspectives, values, opinions, or beliefs—even those that contradict the individual’s opinion 1. So in the exam scenario an open-minded student looks again at the question and considers whether anything s/he has been taught might be useful here, rather than trying to make a direct link back to a specific piece of teaching. Then they make an educated guess.

So how can we help students be cognitively and socially open-minded?

Well, like all other cognitive skills, it’s a question of practice, practice, practice. Students need to encounter situations which require cognitive open-mindedness on a regular basis if they are to get the frequent and regular practice they need. Open-mindedness needs to become a habit, so as a teacher you need to think about how tasks on topics you already plan to cover can be tweaked to generate practice in open-mindedness.

For example: Posing an ethical question like ‘Should we reintroduce wolves into England’. Then asking students to formulate and give a view and their rationale for it. Then turn the tables and ask them to create the case for the alternative view. This second stage is deliberately requesting open-mindedness.

Or ask students to solve a problem and then accept the solution but ask them to go back and find another. Or, alternatively, gather all the solutions from the students or student groups and discuss in a plenary. Then ask if, based on this wider discussion, any individual or groups wants to change their mind. This helps establish the idea that the first answer is not always the best answer and that being open to changing your mind is a good thing. To further cement this idea be explicit and use the language. When a student is saying they now think differently, reward this by using ‘Well done for being so open-minded’. That way others begin to recognise its value.

Of course, an individual students’ level of cognitive openness can be expected to vary across domains. They may be open-minded in maths but less so when it comes to politics or religion. However, we as teachers are often more attuned to creating situations which require open-mindedness in the humanities subjects and arguably less so in the sciences.

Yet most scientific discoveries are the result of lateral thinking and that requires open-mindedness reinforcing that fact that it is important in all domains.

The ability to take an objective view of different ideas and beliefs; become more receptive to other ideas and beliefs based on the arguments of others and change ideas should there be compelling evidence to do so is what mature open-mindedness looks like 2. Closed-minded cognition by contrast, reflects directionally biased information processing. It involves a tendency to select, interpret, and elaborate upon information in a manner that reinforces the individual’s prior opinion or expectation.

Through your teaching you can help all students to recognise that both social and cognitive open-mindedness are important and also help them to know when they are exhibiting open-minded behaviour. That way they will be more successful academically and we will create adults who can be confident and responsible about improving things locally and globally.

1 Price, E., Ottati, V., Wilson, C., & Kim, S. (2015). Open-minded cognition. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 41, 1488-1504. (Original DOI: 10.1177/0146167215600528)

2 Eyre, D (2016) High Performance Learning: How To Become A World Class School. London: Routledge

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