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.
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.
Knowing that “writing is used to gather, remember, and share subject-matter knowledge, as well as to explore, organize, and refine ideas about a topic” (Graham, et al, p. 216), it is easy to see the connections between the act of writing and the use of Executive Function skills. This connection between cognition, executive functions, and the process of writing poses a potentially interesting challenge for writing centres. Inherently, as a means of engaging with students through their writing, we are facilitating the development of EF skills. When we ask students to reflect on their writing, show them organizational techniques, explain thought groups, and review transitions, we are asking them to utilize EF skills. The very act of putting fingers to the keyboard to send a quick email, for example, utilizes the very cognitive skills we know are still developing. My suspicion is that we writing centre professionals are engaging students in ways that facilitate EF development, but that we are not necessarily cognizant of this. As a result, we are likely missing an opportunity to do more overt work in the area of Executive Function development.
At my centres, students often come for support with brainstorming, planning, organizing, and beginning their writing tasks. The “fear of the blank page” can certainly be daunting, but I find myself wondering if that is all there is to it. My centres are newly minted, so I don’t have a wealth of data through which to make specific determinations, but anecdotally, my mind is ablaze with potential opportunities. If we know that Executive Function skills are required for academic and life-long success, and we know that the very act of writing draws on, requires, and utilizes these skills, should writing centre tutors employ distinct and clear strategies that serve to both strengthen learners’ Executive Functions, as well as support their writing skill development? I have a suspicion that many writing centre volunteers are helping students exercise their frontal lobes in many ways, but I’m not sure we’re all aware that we are. Perhaps we need to employ our collective metacognitive strategies and analyze our practices as a whole to see what we’re doing and what more we can do? Cheesy neuroscience humour, I know.
I’d like to conclude with some questions that I hope can help us further develop our own knowledge about Executive Function skills as well as begin to encourage, facilitate, and aid in the development of student EF skills through writing and writing centres. Questions to consider:
- How much do you currently explicitly encourage, facilitate, and help in the development of student EF skills? If you do explicitly encourage, facilitate, and help in the development of EF skills, what specific activities do you use?
- If you are not currently working with students on EF skill development, do you see room for this in your practice? What would be helpful for you to begin to work with students in this skill area?
- If you are a writing centre director or coordinator, do you include EF training for your writing tutors? If yes, what do you include that is specific to EF skills development?
I welcome your answers, thoughts, and feedback or use the comments section below to continue this discussion into Executive Function and writing skills.
Alvarez, J., & Emory, E. (2006). Executive function and the frontal lobes: a meta-analytical review. Neuropsychology Review, 16(1), 17-27.
Arain, M., Haque, M., Johal, L., Mathur, P., Nel, W., Rais, A., … Sharma, S. (2013). Maturation of the adolescent brain. Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, 9, 449-461.
Bradley-Ruder, D. (2008, September-October). The teen brain. Harvard Magazine. Retrieved from http://harvardmagazine.com/2008/09/the-teen-brain.html
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Graham, S., Karris, K., & Olinghouse, N. (2007). Addressing executive function problems in writing: An example from the self-regulated strategy development model. In Meltzer, L. (Ed.), Executive function in education: From theory to practice (216-236). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
Harvard’s Centre for the Developing Child. (2017). Activities guide: Enhancing and practicing executive function skills with children from infancy to adolescence. Retrieved from https://developingchild.harvard.edu/resources/activities-guide-enhancing-and-practicing-executive-function-skills-with-children-from-infancy-to-adolescence/
Harvard’s Centre for the Developing Child. (2017). Executive function activities for adolescents. Retrieved from https://46y5eh11fhgw3ve3ytpwxt9r-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Activities-for-Adolescents.pdf
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University of Michigan. (2017). Executive function problems: What happens when students don’t have good executive function skills? Retrieved from http://dyslexiahelp.umich.edu/professionals/dyslexia-school/executive-function-disorders
Weinberger, D., Elvevåg, B., & Geidd, J. (2005). The adolescent brain: a work in progress. The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, 1-36.
Zumbrunn, S., Tadlock, J., & Roberts, E. (2011). Encouraging self-regulated learning in the classroom: a review of literature. Metropolitan Educational Research Consortium (MERC), 1-28.