Executive Functions in Education Research and Development: Why It Matters to Me

Dr. Jess Gropen is the Co-Principal Investigator of three research projects funded by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) at the U.S. Department of Education: Assessing the Efficacy of a Comprehensive Intervention in Physical Science on Head Start Teachers and Children, Learning and Teaching Algebra, and Cultivating Young Scientists. His work related to executive functions in science, mathematics, and the language arts builds on exciting findings from contemporary research in cognitive science. Here he reflects on the importance of executive functions in learning and their central role in his research:

The topic of “executive functions”—higher-order cognitive processes that control goal-directed behavior and facilitate the organization of information—is currently a hot one in the learning sciences. And for good reason: recent research is beginning to elucidate not only the neural mechanisms underlying these processes (which include inhibition, working memory, and attention shifting), but also how they are related to learning in a variety of academic disciplines.

In our own work in preschool science and middle-school math, my colleagues and I have explored ways to strengthen the executive function skills of students as one aspect of our research on comprehensive professional development programs for their teachers. In this respect, we support teachers in a number of ways:

  • We provide teachers with conceptual frameworks and pedagogical tools that emphasize goal-directed, intentional learning
  • We put teachers in situations in which they experience the same “cognitive disequilibrium” that students face when they grapple with challenging problems
  • We work with teachers to develop formative assessments that are sensitive to students’ particular executive function skills

While there are many good reasons for caring about the role of executive functions in education, the reason I find most compelling is simply the idea of helping students develop control of their own thinking. If students, and ultimately citizens, cannot control their own thinking, it will be controlled for them.