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For young brains to retain information, they need to apply it. Information learned by rote memorization will not enter the sturdy long-term neural networks in the pre-frontal cortex (PFC) unless students have the opportunity to actively recognize relationships to their prior knowledge and/or apply new learning to new situations.
Here are some teaching strategies to help build executive function in your students.
When you provide students with opportunities to apply learning -- especially through authentic, personally meaningful activities -- and then provide formative assessments and feedback throughout a unit, facts move from rote memory to become part of the memory bank.
These opportunities activate the isolated small neural networks of facts or procedures, which then undergo the cellular changes of neuroplasticity that link them into larger neural circuits of related information. These extensive neural circuits integrate new information when they are a) simultaneously activated and b) when they recognize patterns in common.
The expanding of related categories of information (Piaget's schema) through executive function activities will consolidate learning into networks. These networks can be activated when students are prompted to use new learning to solve problems or create new products. This is the transfer process that further promotes network activation with the resulting neuroplasticity to construct long-term memory. Without these opportunities for strengthening, any memories learned by rote are simply pruned away from disuse after the test.
Students need to be explicitly taught and given opportunities to practice using executive functions such as how to learn, study, organize, prioritize, review, and actively participate in class. Activities that can support executive function network development include comparing and contrasting, giving new examples of a concept, spiraled curriculum, group collaboration, open-ended discussions. Additionally, executive function is developed when students summarize and symbolize new learning into new formats, such as through the arts or writing across the curriculum. (See The Brain-Based Benefits of Writing for Math and Science Learning .)
Authentic, student-centered activities, projects, and discussions will give students the opportunity to do the following:
This type of student-prompted information and skill seeking strengthens students' attitude about the value of learning. When motivated to solve problems that are personally meaningful, students apply effort, collaborate successfully, ask questions, revise hypotheses, redo work, and seek the foundational knowledge you need them to learn. And they do this because they want to know what you have to teach.
When students acquire desired facts, skills, or procedures to achieve authentic, valued goals, the information has a template (neural circuit) to which it can link. Foundational knowledge is not isolated. Learning is consolidated into related patterns, connected in neural networks of long-term conceptual memory, and available for retrieval and transfer to solve future problems and investigate new ideas.
In planning instruction, consider how and when you will model these higher thinking skills and provide opportunities for students to activate their developing executive function networks throughout the learning process.
This executive function, when developed, promotes a student's ability to monitor the accuracy of his or her work, and to analyze the validity of information heard or read. Techniques such as estimation with feedback and adjustment, editing and revising one's own written work using rubric guidance, or evaluating websites using criteria to separate fact from opinion are examples of promoting the development of networks for judgment.
This executive function helps students to separate low relevance details from the main ideas of a text or topic of study. Prioritizing is the executive function that guides students when they plan an essay, select information to include in notes, and evaluate word problems in math for the relevant data. Prioritizing also promotes one's ability to combine separate facts into a broader concept with recognition of degrees of relevance and relatedness.
Prioritizing networks will be activated as you guide students to organize, plan ahead, keep records of their most successful strategies, and use this information to make the most efficient use of their time.
Until students fully develop these pre-frontal cortex (PFC) executive functions, they are limited in their capacity to set and stick to realistic and manageable goals. As they develop these executive functions, they need guidance to recognize their incremental progress they make as they apply effort towards their larger goals. This is part of the "video game model" described in my previous blog, How to Plan Instruction Using the Video Game Model.
Plan activities where students can relate what they know from past experiences to their current learning and tie it to the larger concept. When you provide learning experiences by which students can apply new learning to multiple applications, you promote the neural construction of larger conceptual networks that make the new information a valued tool and part of long-term memory. An example would be the use of the rules of magnetism and geographic facts to discover how to use a compass.
Taking the time to plan learning contexts that are personally desirable often means going beyond the curriculum provided in textbooks. This is a hefty burden when you are also under the mandate of teaching a body of information that exceeds the time needed for adequate activation of prior knowledge and mental manipulation. When you plan for and teach with mental manipulation for executive function in mind, your students will come to recognize their own changing attitudes and achievements. When students begin to experience and comment on these insights, consider sharing the processes you used to create the instruction that they respond to positively. Describe your mental manipulation, challenges, and the executive functions you used to create something new as you found the authentic active learning opportunities that activated the students' interest, perseverance, and higher levels of thinking.
These are teachable moments to promote student metacognition, where they can recognize their abilities to extend their horizons and focus beyond simply getting by with satisfactory grades. Help them make the connection that they can build their executive function of long-term goal-directed behavior when they choose to review and revise their work, even when it has been completed, rather than to be satisfied with "getting it done." Your input helps students see the link between taking responsibility for class participation, proactive collaboration, and setting high self-standards for all classwork and homework such that they can say, "I did all I could to do my best."
As the caretaker of your students' brains during the years of rapid prefrontal cortex development, you should consider how you can activate and guide the development of your students' greatest resources -- strong executive functions. The opportunities you provide for mental manipulations using these critical neural networks are precious gifts. These tools will empower them to achieve their highest potentials and greatest satisfaction as they inherit the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century.
Planning instruction and teaching units that activate executive function processing takes teacher and student time -- and it's time that's already severely taxed. However, that time is regained because the learning in these units is successfully retained in long-term memory and re-teaching time is vastly reduced.
The first ones to notice the brain changes of learning that is mentally manipulated through executive functions may be your students. Beyond the increased engagement they experience through active learning, they will find it takes less time to review for tests beyond the unit test, such as a final exam. You'll find that students, who previously didn't have the growth mindset needed to stay with challenging lessons when understanding was not instantaneous, now persevere. But the "payoff" will be especially powerful when their teachers ask you the next year, "What did you do. The students from your class actually remember what they learned last year."
Now think what this means in terms of time. If you didn't have to re-teach "last year's material" you'd be getting all those weeks of time at the beginning of each unit. Thus the a school that promotes instruction for the activation that is needed for development of strong tracts of executive function and long-term memory will build better brains for its students. These brains will retain learning in sustained, transferable, and retrievable long-term memory. Instead of the re-teaching previously required before new instruction can start, there will be weeks of "found time."
In the professional learning communities I observe when I travel throughout the country I see dedicated professionals who chose to become educators because of their dedication to making a difference for all students. Teachers are drawn to their career choices for admirable reasons. (We know it is not for the big bucks or having the work day "end at 3.") Creativity, imagination, perseverance, and motivation endure in the educators I meet, even in these times of teacher blame and over-packed curriculum.
It is critical that we prepare today's students with the executive function skill sets they will need for success in the globalized, information explosive, and ever-expanding technologically progressive 21st century. Just as certain is the continued accountability by educators to teach the over-packed curriculum in the existing standards.
Please take care of yourselves. Take the time to acknowledge any progress toward your goals. What I'm advocating regarding more activation of students' executive function networks may not provide you with immediate evidence of the changes you are promoting in their brains -- although it is highly likely you'll find behavior "management" problems decrease as engagement increases. You'll have to use your executive function of resisting immediate gratification (such as eight hours of sleep or a weekend without prep work) to persevere on the long-term goal of setting in motion the birth of dendrites and synapses to give your students the best chance of achieving their highest potentials of professional, social, and emotional joy, and success in the years to come.
Teach more effectively by learning how students receive and apply information.
Graduate Student/Substitute Teacher from upstate New York
I have always tried to put meaning into everything students are learning in order to stimulate some interest and encourage them to invest themselves into each lesson. I am always waiting for students to ask questions I asked about my education through college such as, "Why are we learning this?" or "When will I use this in real life anyways?" If I do not ask myself the same questions I too will be viewing lessons I teach as having no actual value. I agree there needs to be as much critical thinking as possible, especially in this day and age with everything being electronic and dependence being formed upon such devices. The more students look into why something is rather than only what is will help them develop critical thinking beyond the classroom.
High School Special Education Teacher from Baltimore, Maryland
As a Special Education teacher, I see many students with learning disabilities who have formal assessments completed that show they have weaknesses in executive functioning. Honestly, if all students were tested, probably a majority of them would have similar results! At the high school level, I am often frustrated when students do not have these skills (thinking to myself, "Who was their elementary/middle school teacher?" but knowing it wasn't the teachers' fault). I think the key component, which was highlighted here, is for students to apply their learning so that they internalize the skill. Teachers should always be prepared with an answer to the student's "why?" questions. Additionally, a student's application really should be something that is relevant to their immediate lives, as they often have a difficult time of thinking about the importance of the future or abstract concepts.
I am looking forward to exploring/utilizing the TregoEd tool with my students - thank you for sharing, Sandra!
Middle School Dance Teacher from Bermuda/Graduate Student
During the past few weeks, I've been stressing about what I need to do to help more of my students remember what I teach them. We have so much fun in class, and they are well engaged at the time, but when they return two days later, it is like they are clean, blank canvases. It has been baffling, until now. Reading this blog truly gave me a sense of relief that I'm not such a failure, and it refueled my desire and determination to keep striving for my students' success in learning. I will surely try the strategies. Thanks so much!
I work as a school coach for an alternative education program called Diploma Plus. Typically, our students are over-aged, under-credited, and experience extreme poverty. Our program promotes competency learning through performance based learning systems. As a coach, I struggle with changing the classroom teacher's deep rooted belief that all of the above are reasons why our students "can't get it." I have been following your blog on Edutopia and believe your tips on how to develop executive function are what our teachers need to understand and implement in order for our youth to become engaged with learning. Thank you for your work. I look forward to digging more deeply into your materials. Nancy Cruse School Coach Diploma Plus, Inc.
These are great suggestions that educators and students alike would find beneficial if applied in every classroom. I am an Educational Therapist with the National Institute for Learning Development (NILD) as well as a former classroom teacher. I can attest to the effectiveness of these teaching strategies. It is important that teachers know the brain and how it works to aid them to be the most effective in their students' education and lives. I especially appreciate the emphasis Dr. Willis puts on modeling higher thinking skills. Some students learn those skills more quickly than others. Those with learning disabilities have a much harder time learning them, so modeling and providing many opportunities to practice these skills is essential.
Learning how the brain works and how memory is strengthened is fascinating and of great importance. I encourage educators - and parents, to learn more about how the brain works. With this valuable knowledge they will have better understanding and more tools to help them teach and communicate with their students and children.
This article moved me. I wish we could get this information to all teachers because every student of every learning style would be helped. Does anyone have a recommendation of a wonderful educator that works with teens in NYC, using this approach? I need this sort of assistance for my child. I hope someone can help!
I would be very interested if anyone has ever heard or known of having a project-based language course that will target executive functioning and social skills and use these as the learning targets and outcomes of the course?
In place of a pull-out this will be used as a push-in for special education students in the high school setting. So this course is for special education students who need these skills.
I look forward to helping my students build their executive functions. Students need to see real-life applications for what they are learning and many opportunities to practice the skills they learn. These three strategies will be a helpful guide for me as I facilitate their learning. As they progress in understanding how their brain works, they will be enabled to take a more active role in their education.
I have learned to listen to Dr. Willis's advice ever since I had the honor to interview her at the 21st Century Learning International Conference in Hong Kong. Her insights into the teen brain, the importance of scaffolding, and the blessing of hearing that she, too, is challenged by a teenager all helped me move forward. If you want to see the interview, it is at: http://21clradioepisode-1-neurologist-and-educator-dr-judy-willis/
Thank you so much for writing this article. This information is very important for all teachers to be aware of. One detail that really spoke to me, an elementary teacher pursuing special education, is the focus on building student self-awareness through different components. This is an area that can be addressed easily in the general education classroom for all students through simple modifications ( Jimenez, 2016).
Thank you again for sharing! I will be passing this on to other general education and special education staff!