Executive Function and Writing: What Does It Mean for Writing Centres? – An Open Discussion

Amanda M Marshall, CTESL, M.Ed., is the Writing Centre Project Coordinator for the Nova Scotia Community College.

I have often joked that I have three fantasy careers: an astronaut, a neuroscientist, and a brew-master. While my career trajectory has not led me in those directions, I do have a keen interest in brain-based learning and in how to help students. When thinking about my role as Writing Centre Project Coordinator one evening, possibly over a pint, my inner neuroscientist and prior learning got me thinking, and I started to do some research into Executive Function (EF) skills. EF skills, which include “cognitive processes such as reasoning, planning, and judgement” (Bradley-Ruder, 2008), reside in the frontal lobe/prefrontal cortex of the brain. Interestingly, “the prefrontal cortex is one of the last regions of the brain to reach maturation…[and] is not complete until near the age of 25” (Arain et al., 2013, p. 435). Whilst delving more into EF skills, I began to see a significant connection between EF skills development and the development and deployment of writing skills. I would like to explore more of these connections in this blog, as well as make room for discussion on the topic. I hope you will all join in on the conversation.

Amanda Marshall

First, let’s explore Executive Function a bit more. As mentioned, EF includes the ability to develop and reach goals, process and evaluate information, understand cause and effect, and make reasonable inferences (Bradley-Ruder 2008). Residing in the frontal lobe, we also know that this part of the brain is responsible for logic, strategy, working memory, planning, problem-solving, and reasoning skills (Schwaighofer, Buhner, & Fischer, 2017). When a learner faces difficulty in these areas and with these skills, they will likely encounter challenges parsing, sequencing, remembering, evaluating, organizing, manipulating, planning, self-regulating, and with general task follow-through (Zumbrunn, Tadlock, & Roberts, 2011). This can affect both the learner’s interaction within their learning environment(s), as well as with specific program expectations and activities/tasks.

Understanding that the frontal lobe/prefrontal cortex takes a significant amount of time to fully develop, and knowing that EF skills are not innate, post-secondary education is faced with some unique challenges. Much of what we require of our students depends on their ability to organize, critique, remember, reflect, evaluate, plan, and reason (Graham, Karris, & Olinghouse, 2007). If students are coming to us beginning at the age of 18, for example, not only are they still approximately 7 years from having a fully, physiologically-developed frontal lobe, they may also not have had enough exposure and EF training to be fully successful on their own. “Poor executive functioning leads to difficulty with planning, attention, using feedback, and mental inflexibility” (Johnson, Blum, Geidd, 2009, p. 219), which are all critical skills for post-secondary success and employability. With this in mind, it seems increasingly incumbent on adult educators to direct focus, time, and specific practice to help our students engage in and strengthen their EF skills. When discussing EF skills as they relate to adolescents and young adults, Harvard’s Centre for the Developing Child states that “…executive function skills are not yet at adult levels, but the demands placed on these skills often are” (Harvard’s Centre for the Developing Child, 2017). Further, Weinberger, Elvevåg, and Geidd (2005) remind us that while adolescents and young adults are “full of promise, often energetic and caring, capable of making many contributions to their communities, and able to make remarkable spurts in intellectual development and learning…neurologically, they are not [yet] adults. They are…a work in progress” (2005, p. 19) and require support to continue learning and developing the skills required for post-secondary success. Continue reading “Executive Function and Writing: What Does It Mean for Writing Centres? – An Open Discussion”