What’s an Executive Function?

Thursday, 11 Aug 2022

No – it’s not a good lunch binge for women and men in ties. It is, however, one of the most important understandings we have gained in education as to how cognition (ie the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses) works. There is not a conference we attend these days without references to the brain such are the huge advances that have been made in brain research / neuroscience / etc thanks to magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and other technological wonders.

The executive function is like the ‘engine room’ and is referenced throughout intelligence tests. The concept of intelligence has always been a subject of controversy. Can a single concept account for all of the intellectual faculties of an individual? Can these faculties be separated and measured? And in particular, what do they show and predict about the cerebral functioning of an individual and about social behaviour? The notion of intelligence evokes “skills”, whether they are verbal skills, spatial skills, problem-solving skills or the very elaborate skill of dealing with complexity. 

However, all of these aspects neglect the concept of “potential”. Yet, neurobiological research on learning and cognitive functions clearly shows that these processes undergo constant evolution and are dependent on a number of factors, particularly environmental and emotional ones. This means that a stimulating environment should offer each individual the possibility to cultivate and develop his/her skills. From this point of view, the many attempts to quantify intelligence using tests (such as IQ measurements or others) are too static and refer to standardised and culturally (sometimes even ideologically) biased faculties. Based on a priori assumptions, intelligent tests are restrictive and therefore often (but not always) problematic. 

We have also subscribed to the view that the brain is capable of learning because of its flexibility (the essence of Feuerstein belief). It changes in response to stimulation and from the environment. This flexibility resides in one of its intrinsic properties of the brain – its plasticity. 

Exercise, sleep and diet all play their role in ensuring we look after this most important organ. I believe we offer a vast ‘smorgasbord’ of opportunity for our students and provide the essential balance of learning styles and approaches to stimulate learning and for students to retain knowledge. 

Neurodiverse students (of whom there are plenty) similarly may feel supported as we manage the tasks of differentiating learning to accommodate various needs. They don’t need ‘fixing’ but they do need understanding. 

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