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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Understanding How the Brain Works

For 21st century success, now more than ever, students will need a skill set far beyond the current mandated standards that are evaluated on standardized tests. The qualifications for success in today's ever-changing world will demand the ability to think critically, communicate clearly, use continually changing technology, be culturally aware and adaptive, and possess the judgment and open-mindedness to make complex decisions based on accurate analysis of information. The most rewarding jobs of this century will be those that cannot be done by computers.

For students to be best prepared for the opportunities and challenges awaiting them, they need to develop their highest thinking skills -- the brain's executive functions. These higher-order neural networks are undergoing their most rapid development during the school years, and teachers are in the best position to promote the activation of these circuits. With the help of their teachers, students can develop the skillsets needed to solve problems that have not yet been recognized, analyze information as it becomes rapidly available in the globalized communication systems, and to skillfully and creatively take advantage of the evolving technological advances as they become available.

Factory Model of Education Prepares for "Assembly Line" Jobs

Automation and computerization are exceeding human ability for doing repetitive tasks and calculations, but the educational model has not changed. The factory model of education, still in place today, was designed for producing assembly line workers to do assigned tasks correctly. These workers did not need to analyze, create, or question.

Ironically, in response to more information, many educators are mandated to teach more rote facts and procedures, and students are given bigger books with more to memorize. In every country where I've given presentations and workshops, the problem is the same: overstuffed curriculum.

Even in countries where high-stakes standardized testing is not a dominant factor, school curriculum and emphasis have changed to provide more time for this additional rote memorization. Creative opportunities -- the arts, debate, general P.E., collaborative work, and inquiry -- are sacrificed at the altar of more predigested facts to be passively memorized. These students have fewer opportunities to discover the connections between isolated facts and to build neural networks of concepts that are needed to transfer learning to applications beyond the contexts in which the information is learned and practiced.

The High Costs of Maintaining the Factory Model

If students do not have opportunities to develop their higher order, cognitive skillsets they won't develop the reason, logic, creative problem solving, concept development, media literacy, and communication skills best suited for the daily complexities of life or the professional jobs of their future. Without these skills, they won't be able to compete on the global employment market with students currently developing their executive functions.

Instead, the best jobs will go to applicants who analyze information as it becomes available, adapt when new information makes facts obsolete, and collaborate with other experts on a global playing field. All these skills require tolerance, willingness to consider alternative perspectives, and the ability to articulate one's ideas successfully.

As educators, it is our challenge to see that all students have opportunities to stimulate their developing executive function networks so when they leave school they have the critical skillsets to choose the career and life paths that will give them the most satisfaction.

Executive Function = Critical Thinking

What my field of neurology has called "executive functions" for over 100 years are these highest cognitive processes. These executive functions have been given a variety of less specific names in education terminology such as higher order thinking or critical thinking. These are skillsets beyond those computers can do because they allow for flexible, interpretive, creative, and multidimensional thinking -- suitable for current and future challenges and opportunities. Executive functions can be thought of as the skills that would make a corporate executive successful. These include planning, flexibility, tolerance, risk assessment, informed decision-making, reasoning, analysis, and delay of immediate gratification to achieve long-term goals. These executive functions further allow for organizing, sorting, connecting, prioritizing, self-monitoring, self-correcting, self-assessing, abstracting, and focusing.

The Prefrontal Cortex: Home to Critical Thinking

The executive function control centers develop in the prefrontal cortex (PFC). The PFC gives us the potential to consider and voluntarily control our thinking, emotional responses, and behavior. It is the reflective "higher brain" compared to the reactive "lower brain". This prime real estate of the PFC comprises the highest percentage of brain volume in humans, compared to all other animals, which is roughly 20% of our brains.

Animals, compared to humans, are more dependent on their reactive lower brains to survive in their unpredictable environments where it is appropriate that automatic responses not be delayed by complex analysis. As man developed more control of his environment, the luxury of a bigger reflective brain correlated with the evolution of the PFC to its current proportions.

The prefrontal cortex is the last part of the brain to mature. This maturation is a process of neuroplasticity that includes 1) the pruning of unused cells to better provide for the metabolic needs of more frequently used neurons and 2) strengthening the connections in the circuits that are most used. Another aspect of neuroplasticity is the growth of stronger and increased numbers of connections among neurons. Each of the brain's over one billion neurons holds only a tiny bit of information. It is only when multiple neurons connect through their branches (axons and dendrites) that a memory is stored and retrievable.

This prefrontal cortex maturation, the pruning and strengthening process, continues into the twenties, with the most rapid changes in the age range of 8-16. Electricity flows from neuron to neuron through the axons and dendrites. This electrical flow carries information and also provides the stimulus that promotes the growth of these connections. Each time a network is activated -- the information recalled for review or use -- the connections become stronger and faster (speed through a circuit is largely determined by the layers of myelin coating that are built up around the axons -- this is also in response to the flow of the electric current of information transport when the circuit is activated). The stimulation of these networks during the ages of their rapid development strongly influences the development of the executive functions -- the social-emotional control and the highest thinking skillsets that today's students will carry with them as they leave school and become adults.

Preparing Students for the Challenges and Opportunities of the 21st Century

We have the obligation to provide our students with opportunities to learn the required foundational information and procedures through experiences that stimulate their developing neural networks of executive functions. We activate these networks through active learning experiences that involve students' prefrontal cortex circuits of judgment, critical analysis, induction, deduction, relational thinking with prior knowledge activation, and prediction. These experiences promote creative information processing as students recognize relationships between what they learn and what they already know. This is when neuroplasticity steps in and new connections (dendrites, synapses, myelinated axons) physically grow between formerly separate memory circuits when they are activated together. This is the physical manifestation of the "neurons that fire together, wire together" phenomenon.

Unless new rote memories are incorporated into larger, relational networks, they remain isolated bits of data in small, unconnected circuits. It is through active mental manipulation with prior knowledge that new information becomes incorporated into the already established neural network of previously acquired related memory.

Teaching that Strengthens Executive Function Networks

Making the switch from memorization to mental manipulation is about applying, communicating, and supporting what one already knows. The incorporation of rote memorization into the sturdy existing networks of long-term memory takes place when students recognize relationships to the prior knowledge stored in those networks.

When you provide students with opportunities to apply learning, especially through authentic, personally meaningful activities with formative assessments and corrective feedback throughout a unit, facts move from rote memory to become consolidated into related memory bank, instead of being pruned away from disuse.

The disuse pruning is another aspect of the brain's neuroplasticity. To best support the frequently used networks, the brain essentially dissolves isolated small neural networks of "unincorporated" facts and procedures that are rarely activated beyond drills and tests.

In contrast, opportunities to process new learning through executive functions promote its linkage to existing related memory banks through the growth of linking dendrites and synapses.

Students need to be explicitly taught and given opportunities to practice using executive functions to organize, prioritize, compare, contrast, connect to prior knowledge, give new examples of a concept, participate in open-ended discussions, synthesize new learning into concise summaries, and symbolize new learning into new mental constructs, such as through the arts or writing across the curriculum.

How to Engage Students' Developing Neural Networks to Promote Executive Function

The recommendations here are a few of the ways to engage students' developing networks of executive functions while they are undergoing their most rapid phase of maturation during the school years. Part 2 of this blog will delve more deeply into the mental manipulation strategies that promote consolidation of new input into existing memory circuits.

Judgment: This executive function, when developed, promotes a student's ability to monitor the accuracy of his or her work. Guidance, experiences, and feedback in estimation; editing and revising one's own written work; and class discussions for conflict resolution can activate the circuitry to build judgment.

Prioritizing: This executive function helps students to separate low relevance details from the main ideas of a text, lecture, math word problem, or complete units of study. Prioritizing skills are also used when students are guided to see how new facts fit into broader concepts, to plan ahead for long-term projects/reports, and to keep records of their most successful strategies that make the most efficient use of their time.

Setting goals, providing self-feedback, monitoring progress: Until students fully develop this PFC executive function, they are limited in their capacity to set and stick to realistic and manageable goals. They need support in recognizing the incremental progress they make as they apply effort towards their larger goals (see my previous two blogs about the "video game" model: How to Plan Instruction Using the Video Game Model and A Neurologist Makes the Case for the Video Game Model as a Learning Tool).

Model Metacognition Development Yourself

Planning learning opportunities to activate executive function often means going beyond the curriculum provided in textbooks. This is a hefty burden when you are also under the mandate of teaching a body of information that exceeds the time needed for successful mental manipulation.

When you do provide these executive function-activating opportunities, students will recognize their own changing attitudes and achievements. Students will begin to experience and comment on these insights, "I thought ... would be boring, but it was pretty interesting" and "This is the first time I really understood ... " or simply, "Thanks" and "That was cool."

These student responses are teachable moments to promote metacognition. Consider sharing the processes you use to create the instruction that they respond to positively. These discussions will help students recognize their abilities to extend their horizons and focus beyond simply getting by with satisfactory grades. They can build their executive functions of long-term goal-directed behavior, advance planning, delay of immediate gratification. In this way, they can take advantage of opportunities to review and revise work -- even when it has been completed -- rather than to be satisfied with "getting it done." Your input can help students see the link between taking responsibility for class participation, collaboration, and setting high self-standards for all classwork and homework, such that they can say, "I did my best and am proud of my efforts."

As written on the gate of my college, the message we can send our students is:

Climb high. Aim Far.
Your goal the sun;
Your aim the stars.

Copyright © Judy Willis 2011

Understanding How the Brain Thinks
Teach more effectively by learning how students receive and apply information.

Comments (22)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Lynn's picture
Retired ESL for adults and elementary school teacher in California

My information on why we have universal free education in the U.S.A. is that it's required in order for a democracy to function. The beginnings of free education in the U.S A.predate the assembly line type jobs that Ford started. I had a very traditional education in the 50s and 60s, full of rote memorization, yet I am a keen critical thinker with well developed higher thinking skills. We did have discussions, some hands on work in biology labs and information put into context with movies.
The types of skills needed are those that a parent needs to raise a family, just as much as those needed by an executive. I and many teachers I know hate how the time needed to the teach to the test has taken away teacher initiative, control and creativity and has left little time for anything else in the classroom. The testing movement is just another money sucking, untested program that has taken funding away from educations. The direction to which J. Willis points us can be an improvement, if it is fully funded and implemented. Education is not as complicated as we make it. If we had 10 to 1 student - teacher ratio, money for field trips and making learning fun, interesting, challenging and in context, money to take students out into the community to apply learning and involved parents, we would have and educated public, one which would not have accepted Bush's invasion of Iraq or allowed the banks to send us into a world financial crisis.

Joe Mitchell's picture
Joe Mitchell
Urban Counselor -Chicago


Well said. The testing movement needs to be retired, Ironically, who is keeping the "accountability" movement accountable? When we collectively wake up from our bad case of NCLB, we will openly wonder how we abdicated our leadership & ushered in an absurd de-facto micromanagement of our classsrooms.

Randy Kulman's picture
Randy Kulman
President, LearningWorks for Kids

Hi Judy,

Another great and informative blog. Your point about explicitly teaching "how to" use executive functions is particularly important for children with learning, attentional, and social/emotional difficulties. These kids tend to struggle in generalizing or transferring skills from one situation to another. Parents and teachers need to find ways to help the kids reflect and connect executive skills taught in the classroom to real world situations.

Making parents, teachers, and kids more aware of the importance of executive functions may be helpful. One source of information for this is on our soon to be totally revised website http://learningworksforkids.com/m2/parents/m2p_executive_functions.html . There is also a section for children that explains 8 different "thinking" or executive functioning skills http://learningworksforkids.com/m2/kids/m2k_ts_planning.html . I hope these are useful for your readers.

Waldemar's picture

It is illuminating to find out how to put your ideas into practice. Thank you for this article!

Judy Willis MD's picture
Judy Willis MD
Neurologist/Teacher/Grad School Ed faculty/Author

NEXT ASCD "Ask Dr Judy" WEBINAR: What Makes Memories Stick? August 10, 2011 3pm EST. Registration begins Aug 1, 2011 www.ascd.org

Archived Webinars all at http://bit.ly/Dr_Judy_Webinars
* Strengthening the Brain's Executive Functions: The Real Higher Order Processing April 13, 2011
* How to Promote a Learning-Receptive Emotional State 2/2/2011
* Maximizing Student Memory by Learning from Mistakes 10/14/2010
* How Can I Motivate My Students? Fall 2010
* Why Don't Students Pay Attention? May 11, 2010 (The first 10 minutes have a voice repeat/delay, but that goes away and the rest is clear.)

Judy Willis MD's picture
Judy Willis MD
Neurologist/Teacher/Grad School Ed faculty/Author

Understanding by Design Meets Neuroscience: Teaching to the Test and Rote Memory Tests as Measurement of Achievement are Not Neuro-logical for Successful, Joyful, Learning. ASCD Edge
The below is only part 3 but you can go back to the others or download full pdf
Go to link in the column on right side of page when you scroll down to "Shared Group Documents & Resources" to download "Judy Willis' Complete Series of 3 posts Understanding by Design Meets Neuroscience or use direct link: http://groups.ascd.org/resource/documents/110564-JudyWillisCompleteSerie...

Susan Riley's picture
Susan Riley
Arts Integration Specialist

This is a wonderful article, Judy. Thanks for sharing your unique insights! Your research and study are exactly the reason that I advocate for arts integration. When we use the arts as a vehicle for learning the content areas, students are able to make those deeper, meaningful connections. We know that the brain engages differently when we use the arts and by combining this with the subjects of reading, math, social studies and science, students can learn the essential creative skills needed for deep problem solving and innovation - exactly what we need for 21st century education.

You're right - we are no longer a factory model society. In the 21st century, we need to build creativity, innovation and imagination skills in our students so that they can make personal meaning and application of the knowledge we are providing. Creativity is hard to assess on a standardized test. Let's continue to look at ways in which we can extend, expand and engage our learners - both in and out of the classroom!

If you're interested in more professional development this fall on arts integration, or in arts techniques that you can use directly in the classroom, registration for online classes is going on now at http://educationcloset.com/online-classes/ You can also check out www.theartofed.com for online classes in fostering creativity in the classroom.

Let's continue to build our resources and knowledge together to revamp our educational practices!

Staci James's picture

I can't get the downloadable PowerPoint link above to work - Skillsets for 21st Century Success: Executive Functions. Can you help me with this?

Allison Burgeson's picture
Allison Burgeson
Elementary Literacy Specialist and Title I Teacher

I would be interested to no more about rote memorization and how to get away from it. Many teachers struggle to get away from using rote memorization, particularly when teaching math facts. Is there value in flash card practice? Or should we be utilizing a strategy that enables the executive functions of students when learning math facts?

Judy Willis MD's picture
Judy Willis MD
Neurologist/Teacher/Grad School Ed faculty/Author

There are many situations where memorization by repetition and practice is necessary. In most academic contexts there needs to be a base of foundational knowledge build from repeated experiences or practice. In learning to speak a foreign language one needs domain knowledge of vocabulary words. To do mathematical computations one needs a consistent set of representations for specific quantities. To develop larger funds of knowledge and construct concepts that are based on specific designations, such as the hours of a day or the distance represented by a foot or meter, facts must be memorized by repetition, practice, or experience.
But rote memorization does not have to be unpleasant. The best way to promote any behavior is by its association with pleasure. Because most children enjoy playing games (in real time and space or on computers) the practice of facts is promoted by incorporating it into games. You mentioned math so I'm including a list below of computer games or fun practice sites I reviewed and included in my book, Learning to Love Math: Teaching Strategies that Change Student Attitudes and Get Results. It was published last year, so some of the sites may have changed or have started to charge for use.

Interactive Math Fact Practice

AAA Math (K-8 interactive arithmetic lessons) www.aaamath.com

Aplus Math (K-8 interactive arithmetic games and worksheets)

K-8 interactive arithmetic games: www.coolmath.com

DimensionM (online multiplayer video games where K-12 students compete
and collaborate with other players) www.dimensionu.com/math

Discovery Education(r): Brain Boosters http://school.discoveryeducation.com/brainboosters/#number

Explore Learning: Gizmos(tm)(interactive online simulations for
grades 3-12) www.explorelearning.com

Interactivate: Activities (K-8 interactive arithmetic games and worksheets)

Interactivate: Area Explorer (interactive activities about area calculation)

Kinderweb PreK-6 interactive arithmetic games http://kinderwebgames.com

Learner.org: Cooking by Numbers (metric recipes) www.learner.org/interactives/dailymath/meters_liters.html

The MAA Mathematical Sciences Digital Library (links to math news,
events, and free game sites) http://mathdl.maa.org

Math Cats: Tessellation Town (tessellation activities)

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