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

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

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Deborah Thiessen's picture

I am so inspired. This book makes so much sense. I originally bought it for a math teacher who is struggling with students struggling with him. I couldn't put it down and started underlining. He will have to wait!
It explains in Appendix B: Brain Owner's Manual clear enough language I can teach to my students. I will be developing some lessons this summer. I would love to hear how you present the brain to your middle school math students.

Webshooter2020's picture
Technical training supervisor for a semiconductor company in USA

Hi Dr. Willis, thanks for the great article. I enjoyed your explanation of the brain functions in learning. In the beginning of the section called Model Metacognition Development Yourself you issue a challenging statement for all public school teachers when you say

"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."

This statement follows a section where you explain several exercises that can be used to develop metacognition in young learners. Many of the tasks you identify to build metacognition could be employed by the teacher to teach the children how to learn the topics included in the standardized tests. It is clear that standardized testing is not going to stop any time soon, so perhaps teachers could use the testing materials as the basis for developing executive learning skills.

Could the teachers create learning scenarios where the students tackle problems that are directly related to the standardized testing materials? If the teachers know that the students need to know about square roots, couldn't they teach the students how to plan to learn square roots also? Couldn't the students also learn the inverse of a square root as a means to analyze their square root calculations? Then couldn't the analyses lead to discussions about where the concept of squaring was developed which could lead on to further discussions. The children might even learn to like square roots. There would still be a need for rote memorization, but there is also opportunity for experimentation.

I am not suggesting that this is a task that individual teachers should feel the need to undertake. The body of educators as a whole should take on the challenge of building higher level thinking skills into the everyday student curriculum. If we have standardized tests then we may want to try to institute standardized curriculum. If we know that standardized testing calls for X, Y, and Z then we should seek to incorporate higher learning practices into learning X, Y, and Z so that all students will understand on the highest possible levels.

This may be a perfect place to find synergy between two apparently competing ideas; higher level thinking and standardized testing.

michelle's picture
higher education

The way you explain the function of the brain in learning is just so clear and I think you did a great job doing it. Just as you mention, students today need more than just to be taught to pass standardized tests. In the past, the body of knowledge was simple because life was much simpler. Nowadays with technological advances, the body of knowledge has grown so rapidly that is just out of control. Everyone has access to information and there is just no balance or parameters to guide this quick grow of data. Education in general was enclosed in a curriculum, now it is hard to select which knowledge should be included in the curriculum.

Another aspect of education that has evolved is the way we approach learning. There are many ways of learning and everyone has their own favorite style. But just as we need to remember that just as there are various ways of learning, the way the learning material is presented has a lot of pertinence because it determines the effectiveness of the learning experience. For example, Cruey (2008) explains how learning has changed in the 21st century where elements such as the core subjects, the learning skills, the learning tools, the learning content and context, and the assessment have shifted dramatically to redefine how people approach learning. Knowing this information would make you think that education would move along with these trends to become more effective, but the reality is that some of us are still teaching to pass standardized tests, instead of higher thinking skills such as problem solving skills or executive functions just as you mentioned in your article. Based on this reality, we can conclude that there is a type of irony in education today. I believe that educational experts such as instructional designers, teachers, etc., should be up to date in the latest research; as for example, neuroscience. This will definitely increase their knowledge in the effective teaching and learning practices that will aid in the effort to move the education forward and sequentially the society. So, as times change, so does education and so do we as educators.

Curey, G. (2008). 21st century learning focus. Retrieved from

Jodianne's picture
Music Specialist

This post will be a great tool for me as I create a case for maintaining music specialist time in the elementary schools in our district. The skills that are developed through studying music map well to the development of the pre-frontal cortex. Your descriptions are easy to understand and yet complex enough to provide a firm foundation for my arguments.

Thank you

Algebra++'s picture

I encourage and discourage certain math efforts (including memorization), by highlighting the programmer's solutions. 1) Lookup tables ( are used to reduce processor workload. "The savings in terms of processing time can be significant, since retrieving a value from memory is often faster than undergoing an 'expensive' computation." Times-tables are the original lookup tables. 6x7 is so common, it's more efficient to fetch it from memory. Less common, say 6x47, we then calculate. 2) Division takes a computer 7 times longer than a multiplication. Good programmers avoid division whenever possible ( *0.5 rather than /2 ). Dr. Willis probably knows of the MRI studies of people doing long division. It bogs all brains downnnnn....

Leslie L's picture

You may be interested to look at international efforts to build specific cognitive functions, including executive function, at the website associated with the lifelong work of Dr. Reuven Feuerstein of Jerusalem. Now in his 90's, as a young educator he worked to rehabilitate and educate children of the Holocaust. In the process of learning how best to assess and address the educational needs of these young trauma victims, he derived some fascinating ways to build cognitive functions from the most basic to the complex.

Dennis Reumer's picture
Dennis Reumer
TRNK mission is to inspire and teach children to be great developers and de

Especially the learning skills of younger children.

In addition to the model you describe here, we're also including and further investigation how much the motor system is involved in the cognitive development and active learning.

We have found interesting positive correlations between more involvement of the eye-hand coordination in the subjects to be learned (even just copying from the text-books in some cases).

It is one of the basic principles we're applying, in helping children to learn how to buil applications.

Emily's picture
ESL teacher

Interesting insight. As an ESL teacher, I have noticed that the students who have done drill after drill in grammar usually are not as good speakers as those who just "try" it. However, basic grammar is still a need in order for the student to learn to write, etc. Do you have insight as to how one could teach something like grammar using the executive function?

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

Promote executive function activation and grammar with motivating literature - students' favorite stories or book pages. Select sentences or paragraphs from which to rewrite, removing the aspects of grammar or punctuation you want to address. For commas, when students find they don't enjoy/understand meaning as well without that punctuation, they can describe what they "miss" and deduce the rules of commas. For parts of speech or tense copy the section with the focus words omitted and let students "fill in" words of their choice and give reasons why. They will be deducing the function and rules of grammar going from concrete to concept.
Keep igniting,

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