Executive Function Isn’t What You Think It Is (Maybe)

As a soccer coach, I want my students to get better at soccer.

As an English teacher, I want my students to get better at English.

And, as a hip-hop dance instructor, I want my students to get better at hip-hop dance.

To accomplish those goals, I usually teach them soccer, English, and hip-hop dance.

That is: I need to tailor my teaching SPECIFICALLY to the topic I want my students to learn. Sadly, for instance, when I teach English, I’m not helping students learn soccer (or math, or dance…)

Wouldn’t it be great if I could teach some GENERALLY useful skill that would boost their abilities in all those areas? This broad, overarching skill would make my students better soccer players, English essayists, and hip-hop dancers. That would be amazing

Answer Number One

For a few decades now, we have mostly thought that the answer to that question is “no.”

Despite all the hype, for example, teaching young children to play the violin doesn’t make them better at math later on.

The exception to that general rule: EXECUTIVE FUNCTIONS.

When children get better at, say, inhibition, they improve across all their studies.

In soccer, they resist the temptation to run to the ball, and instead play their position.

In English, they break their bad habits — like using too many dashes — and choose good ones instead.

And in dance, they follow the tricky choreography that steers them away from the (super-tempting) downbeat.

So, executive functions — task switching, prioritizing, self-control, etc. — help students generally.

No wonder we spend so much time talking about them.

Answer Number Two

Professor Sabine Doebel wonders: what if that account of executive function is just wrong.

  • What if executive functions — like so many other things — depend on specific, local circumstances.
  • What if we don’t develop general abilities to inhibit actions, but we learn specifically that we shouldn’t run to the soccer ball (or use dashes, or step on the downbeat)?
  • And, what if getting better at one of those local skills doesn’t make me better at any of the others?

She explains this argument in a Tedx talk. Happily, this one includes an adorable video of children trying the famous “Marshmallow Test.” (It also has an even more adorable video of children trying the less-well-known “Card Sorting Task.”)

She has also recently published a think piece on this question in Perspectives on Psychological Science. This document, naturally, is more technical than a Tedx video. But it’s certainly readable by non-experts who don’t mind some obscure technical terminology.

Why Do We Care?

If the traditional account of executive function is accurate, then we can help students generally by training their EFs.

If Doebel’s account is more accurate, then — alas — we can’t.

Instead, we have to help students learn these specific skills in specific contexts.

Because Doebel is proposing a new way to think about executive functions, I don’t doubt there will be LOTS of institutional resistance to her ideas. At the same time, if she’s right, we should allow ourselves to be persuaded by strong research and well-analyzed data.

This question won’t be answered for a long time.

But, we can use our (general or specific) executive function skills, restrain our impatience, and keep an open mind.

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