Edutopia: Improving Executive Function: Teaching Challenges and Opportunities

By Judy Willis MD

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quantities of facts fails to prepare them for much beyond assembly line work — and that line of thinking is outdated.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.

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