Tag Archives: learning

Why Do We All Need to Know More About Executive Functions?

Executive functions consist of those mental processes that allow us to participate fully in a variety of roles and relationships through planning, focusing and remembering while controlling our impulses and working systematically to achieve goals. There is an expectation that students arrive at school with a number of these skills already developed, enabling them to participate in a group learning environment. While children generally begin developing these skills at a very young age in their homes with their families, the development of these functions continues through adolescence.

The relationship between giftedness and executive functioning is an interesting one. Some studies have shown that math abilities correlate significantly with executive functioning with some variances. (Rebecca Bull and Gaia Scerif, 2010.) Other studies find a correlation between executive functioning and achievement. (St. Clair-Thompson and Gathercole, 2010.) In gifted education we know that cognitive abilities do not guarantee academic achievement and underachieving gifted students-could this be related to struggles with executive functions in some cases? In his work, Re-examining the Role of Gifted Education and Talent Development for the 21st Century, Joseph Renzulli speaks to the necessity of talent and cognitive development going hand in hand with what he calls the “character strengths” of executive functions. These are developed through addressing novel situations that require children to draw on and develop these skills for success. But what does this look like in practice?

A week ago I was working with three gifted 8 year olds on one of the Destination Imagination challenges. Designed to foster curiosity, courage and creativity, I use this program not only as a means to challenge my students to solve novel and complex problems, but to create scenarios where I can help them cultivate their virtues (gifts of character) as they learn project management skills and collaboration. They were trying to solve an instant challenge that involved building a tower within specific parameters when things fell apart. Two of the students took over the task while the third withdrew with tears streaming down his face. I quietly acknowledged that I saw his tears and sat with him while we waited for the other two students to complete the task.

After measuring the height of their structure we began debriefing the teamwork part of the challenge at which point they acknowledged that it had not gone well and that there had been some conflict. I spoke to them about conflict arising when there is a difference in  the individual interests in carrying out a task and asked each of them what had been important to them as they were working on the challenge.

“To do it right,” the boy with tears responded.

“That would be the virtue of excellence,” I said, writing the word on the board.

“To work on it together,” responded the girl who had taken the structure away from the boy.

“That sounds like the cooperation virtue is important to you,” I said, writing it on the board beside excellence.

The third student responded that they were frustrated because the boy had not explained to them what he was doing before starting to build the solution.

“You needed understanding,” I said, writing that virtue on the board. “Now look at the things causing your conflict. They are all virtues. Are they important virtues to nurture on your team?” All three nodded. “So how can we get these virtues working together?” I asked.

After some discussion they agreed that communication was important and also came to understand that communicating with words was sometimes difficult for the boy. After we agreed that this was something we would work on together they were ready to move on. We had an incredibly productive morning and this new understanding continued the next time we met.

What really touched me about this incident was the ability of these children to see the virtues in each others actions despite the fact that they had really struggled. It empowered them to understand themselves and each other better as they moved forward to complete more tasks successfully.

“Children aren’t born with these skills[executive functions]—they are born with the potential to develop them.” -Centre on the Developing Child, Harvard University

This statement reflects the premise guiding the Virtues Project as well-that children are born in potential and as with anything that is “in potential”-seeds, executive functions, virtues, habits… require certain conditions to grow and develop. Those of us privileged to work with and parent children need to understand our role in creating those conditions and not give up when we don’t see in some children what may seem innate in others as it is an opportunity to play our part in their development.

“Providing the support that children need to build these skills at home, in early care and education programs, and in other settings they experience regularly is one of society’s most important responsibilities.” -Centre on the Developing Child, Harvard University

For more insight on this topic check out the overview video at the Centre on the Developing Child-Harvard University  which does a brilliant job of explaining executive functioning and self regulation. The website itself highlights the relationship between working memory, mental flexibility and self-control and stresses the importance of children having opportunities to apply these skills in coordination with others. You can also learn more about executive functions at Hoagies Blog Hop by clicking here or on the icon below:



Minecraft Minefield?

There are several options that the students who participate in the pull-in program can choose: being on a Destination ImagiNation team, a science or arts based retreat, a computer game design group or to work on an independent project. Of all the pull-in sessions the one that intimidates me the most is the independent project. While I tell students in advance that for this option they should have a passion that they can truly get lost in for two days, Some students can do this without any problem. Last week there was a girl who sat in a corner on the floor working on short stories for two days. She loves writing stories. The characters are like friends to her. She loves the two days she has to write. Other students move back and forth between things, as they explore learning to program, research topics, create claymations, transpose music, design cookbooks…it’s an interesting dynamic. I want it to be exploratory and playful, but also productive. The challenge is how easy it is for a student to slip into game mode, unbeknownst to me, while working on the computer. The most favored game: Minecraft.

Over the past few years, I have noticed many of my students are very involved in Minecraft. They seem to like to way the game allows them to “play” in it while also offers the opportunity to be creative in building aspects of it as you go. I have spoken to other educators about the game and it’s educational value and the reviews have been mixed. Some have tried to use it as an educational tool, while others see it as a distracting time sink. Parents have also commented on it, most worried about the time their children spend on their computer. Several of my students in the computer game design group have argued that it teaches them computer programming, and while I do have one team working intensely on a “mod” for the game, most just want to play.

What I learned about Minecraft this week surprised me. I decided to just let two boys in my independent group who are consistently distracted by Minecraft go into the game to observe what they are doing. And this is what I found out. They have been working on their own Minecraft server for the past few months. They started hosting the server on one of their computers, but when it got too big, they found another host in Calgary, and may in short order need to move to a bigger host: their clientele is growing. Their clientele is paying real money to be in the game and purchase some of the add-ons that are available to enhance their game playing experience. Not only that, they are also managing an online staff of sixteen people. These sixteen people are helping them to improve their server. All sixteen have had to go through an application process in addition to a trial period while these two assess their abilities. Over time, depending on the skills of the staffer, they are granted more permissions to go in and add to the game. They have also been advertising their game on different lists, and purchasing ads to attract to players. The goal of these two boys: to network their server so that eventually when this one gets too big, they have other high quality servers their clientele can access, with new enhancements to purchase. Yesterday, they sold $70 worth of enhancements in just the time they were with me while responding to and dealing with problems that their clients and staff were putting forward. They’re in grade nine.

As teachers we are often told that we are preparing students for a world that does not yet exist. On Friday I had this overwhelming feeling that they are already excelling in a world that we don’t know exists. While there is a part of me that struggles with the exchange of money over “virtual” things, as I research more about the game, there are possibilities that look amazing…if only I loved computer games..