Brain-Based Learning

Improving Executive Function: Teaching Challenges and Opportunities

September 1, 2011

The High Cost of Over-Packed Curriculum Standards

For 21st century success, students will need skill sets far beyond those that are mandated in the densely packed standards -- and that's evaluated on bubble tests. In the near future, success will depend on accelerated rates of information acquisition. And we need to help students develop the skill sets to analyze new information as it becomes available, to flexibly adapt when facts are revised, and to be technologically fluent (as new technology becomes available). Success will also depend upon one's ability to collaborate and communicate with others on a global playing field -- with a balance of open-mindedness, foundational knowledge, and critical analysis skills so they can make complex decisions using new and changing information.

We are painfully aware that the educational model has not changed to accommodate the exponentially increasing amount of information pertinent to students. In every country I've given presentations and workshops, the problem is the same: overstuffed curriculum. In response to more information, educators are mandated to teach more rote facts and procedures and students are given bigger books and more to memorize.

The factory model of education still in place was designed for producing assembly line workers to do assigned, repetitive tasks correctly. These workers did not need to analyze, create, or question. Packing students' brains with unreasonable quantities of facts fails to prepare them for much beyond assembly line work -- and that line of thinking is outdated. Automation and computerization have surpassed the human ability for doing most repetitive tasks and information collection.

The human brain does have the equipment for the new critical skill sets needed in the future, but it cannot activate these tools without guided experiences. These tools, the neural networks that control executive functions, develop in the prefrontal cortex and do so most profoundly during the school years. Unlike other parts of the brain and body that develop automatically over time, the circuits that direct executive function require appropriate stimuli to develop appropriate response capabilities. As educators, it is our challenge to provide the stimuli that ignites and develops these dormant brain circuits so students can best select and succeed in the career and life paths they choose.

Executive Functions for Current and Future Opportunities

What my field of neurology has called "executive functions" for over 100 years, are the highest cognitive processes -- they are sometimes called higher order thinking or critical thinking. Executive functions can be thought of as the skills that would make a corporate executive successful -- the ability to be flexible, interpretive, creative, and have multidimensional thinking. Examples include planning, risk assessment, informed decision-making, deductive and inductive reasoning, critical analysis, and delay of immediate gratification to achieve long-term goals. These executive functions provide the tools the brain then uses for organizing, connecting, and prioritizing of information and tasks, attention focusing, self-monitoring, self-correcting, accurate prediction, abstraction, and creative problem-solving.

The Prefrontal Cortex: The Most Valuable Brain Real Estate

As the executive function control centers are activated in the prefrontal cortex (PFC) children are more able to consider and voluntarily control their thinking, emotional responses, and behavior. The PFC can be thought of as the "reflective" higher brain compared to the "reactive" lower brain. The prime real estate of the PFC comprises roughly 20-percent of our brains -- the highest percentage of brain volume of all animals.

Other animals are more dependent on their reactive lower brains to survive in their unpredictable environments. As man developed more control of his environment, the luxury of a larger 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 prunes away unused cells to better provide for the metabolic needs of the most frequently activated neurons. The other aspect of neuroplasticity is the growth of stronger and increased numbers of connections among frequently activated neurons. Single neurons hold only a tiny bit of any memory. It is only when multiple neurons connect, through the branches and synapses they grow, that a memory is stored for retrieval or a voluntary action can be carried out.

This prefrontal cortex maturation continues well into the twenties, with the most rapid changes happening from ages 8 through 16. It is the flow of electricity from neuron to neuron, through connections called axons and dendrites, that activates the neuroplastic growth of more efficient connections. Each time a network is stimulated -- its information recalled or used -- the connections become stronger and faster. The stimulation during the ages of their rapid development strongly influences social-emotional control and the highest thinking skill sets 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 "activating" experiences that stimulate judgment, pattern recognition, induction, deduction; and activate prior knowledge, analysis, and prediction. Experiences that promote executive function activation include evaluating and doing something with information while they learn, such as discovering relationships between what they learn and what they already know, or transforming new learning into another form, such as writing about math or symbolically transforming a story into a drawing.

Unless new rote memories are incorporated into larger, relational networks, they remain isolated bits of data in small, unconnected circuits likely to be pruned away. It is through "doing something" -- active mental manipulation -- that new information becomes available for usable retrieval. If there is memorization without mental manipulation the isolated rote fact memories can only be retrieved by the specific cues through which they are practiced in repetitive drills. Mental manipulation promotes the neuroplasticity that constructs new connections (dendrites, synapses, myelinated axons) between formerly separate memory circuits each time they are activated together. This is the physical manifestation of the idea that "neurons that fire together, wire together."

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