Most teachers will recognise the importance of “executive function”, even if they have never heard the term before. It was one of the first areas of cognition that education research focused on, and that focus is still going strong today.
Executive function, also known as “cognitive control”, is the set of mental processes responsible for how we control our behaviour and work towards the attainment of goals. As such, it is key for academics seeking to understand how children learn – and the reasons why learning sometimes does not happen.
And the education profession has been quick to catch on to just how important cognitive control is. Countless books and journal articles have been published on the role of executive function in teaching, and there are now numerous guides and programmes designed to help pupils improve their cognitive control and apply self-regulation strategies that will make them better learners.
But has all this study resulted in improved teaching? Are our classrooms more effective as a result of this scholarly insight?
One person who might be able to answer that question is Lucy Cragg, associate professor in the faculty of science at the University of Nottingham. Her research focuses specifically on the development of cognitive control in school-age children, how these processes contribute to academic achievement and what happens to them in neurodevelopmental conditions such as ADHD.
Cragg says that executive function can be broken down into three areas: working memory, which looks at the way we hold information in our mind while we focus on another task; inhibitory control, which concerns the way people ignore the distractions around them and focus on what needs to be done; and flexibility, which relates to the way we adapt our mental processes to deal with unexpected situations.
“For example, if you normally drive a particular way to school and one day a road happens to be closed, then you kick in a set of processes to try and find an alternative route or a different way of doing things,” Cragg says. “Or if you change your password on a computer, you might automatically start typing the old password, but you need to stop yourself from doing that and think of your new one and do that instead.”
Another example she gives is going to the supermarket with the list of items that you need in your head. “You need to hold the list in mind and update it as you pick up the items, which is working memory; plan the most efficient route around the shop, and come up with an alternative if something you need isn’t there, which is flexibility; and resist being distracted by all the yummy-looking things that you want but don’t need, which is inhibition.”
Cragg says that for any child who is struggling in class, there is a good chance that some element of an executive function problem will be at play, so it is a vital area for teachers to get to grips with.
“I think it is important to understand that executive function skills can be really slow to develop, so although really early on in childhood, and particularly in pre-school years, children do have some ability to control and guide their own behaviour, really right through until late adolescence these skills are continuing to develop and improve,” she says.
Both parents and teachers can find this process frustrating, she adds. “Really, teachers need to just be aware that they should not expect too much too early. Executive function encompasses a lot of very general skills; it impacts on a lot of areas of development and learning within the classroom, as well as their general behaviour as well,” explains Cragg.
It would be useful, then, if research into executive function identified specific interventions or strategies that can help to develop these vital skills in cases where they appear to be lacking. Cragg believes that, unfortunately, there is still more work to be done before such processes can be properly understood.
“It will always be hard to find a one-size-fits-all approach to improving executive function,” she says. “You might want to reduce the distractions in a classroom to try and make learning easier, but we live in a world where there are constant distractions. So to some extent, children have to be able to learn to deal with those.”
However, Cragg adds, there are some techniques that teachers can try – particularly around how instructions are given to pupils. “In some situations where pupils need access to information, it might have been placed on the classroom wall,” she says. “Some suggest making sure this information is at the back of the classroom, so it is always there when needed, but not always in view; or giving out handouts when it is important to have that information, but taking them away again when it might be better to have no distractions.”
One approach that has gained some traction in recent years, but which Cragg says has not been proven to be effective within schools, is the use of so-called brain-training games, which claim to be designed to improve working memory.
“The evidence now shows that those isolated computerised training programmes do not actually transfer that well to learning in the classroom. While practising memory games on the computer can improve your memory on very similar games or tasks, it might not necessarily improve your score on your maths test in the classroom,” she says.
While these games might not be the answer, there are alternative approaches that have been shown to help children who have problems with executive function. Where teachers are aware that individual pupils have working memory problems, for example, they can put strategies in place to address those specific issues – such as ensuring that they write things down, or giving shorter, clearer instructions – rather than relying on general memory-aid games. “Slowly building up the amount of information that they can remember is going to work – but it is important to do it in the specific context that you are trying to improve,” Cragg says.
Her next research project will look at the skills that children need when they are doing arithmetic, and it will focus on both executive function skills and maths-specific skills. “One thing that has come up in that is that being able to ignore distractions and irrelevant information seems to be really important for knowing your number facts – things like times tables and number bonds,” she says.
“We are really trying to pinpoint exactly what the role of ignoring distractions is. We know if someone is given a times table problem – say eight times seven – in your brain, they will also activate the answer to questions like eight plus seven, and eight times six. So how is inhibitory control involved in being able to suppress all those other alternative answers and pick the correct answer, and how does that change as you learn your times tables?”
The research will be particularly important now that the government is looking to bring in times table checks in the UK, Cragg says.
“We expect to find that when you are first learning number facts, inhibitory control is probably not that important because you are not going to be activating all of these different sums in your head; but then when you start to learn these sums, it will be really important, because you have a bit of knowledge but you have to choose between all of these competing answers. Then, as you become more skilled and you strongly know the correct answer, the importance of inhibition is going to reduce again, because you are going to be able to strongly activate the one correct answer, and won’t as strongly activate the incorrect answers.”
Teachers wishing to participate in Professor Lucy Cragg’s next research project on the skills that children need for doing arithmetic can register interest at bit.ly/SumProject
Chris Parr is a freelance journalist. He tweets @chrisjparr