Growing the Creative Executive Brain

#5 in a series from The Motivated Brain: Improving Student Attention, Engagement, and Perseverance by Gayle Gregory and Martha Kaufeldt
How many times have you heard, or even said, “My students can’t do that!”  I remember when the graduation requirement in my state changed from General Math 1 and 2 to Algebra 1.  “That will never work,” we said.  “Everyone can’t do Algebra!”  Oh how the world and our understanding has changed in the last 25 years.  So now that we know better and understand that intelligence is not fixed but can be grown, what do we do to maximize the brain’s potential in every student?
In this series I have summarized important points from the work of Gregory and Kaufeldt and made connections between the information provided and the realities of the classroom.  We have looked at what neuroscience has taught us about preparing the brain for learning, building intrinsic motivation and supporting the brain in processing information for long term retention.
In chapter 5 we move to the highest levels of cognition, executive functions which the authors’ list as: (p. 95)  

  • Planning and organizing
  • Holding multiple ideas and thoughts in working memory
  • Strategizing and problem-solving
  • Complex thinking and hypothesizing
  • Keeping track of time
  • Synthesizing by combining knowledge and ideas into new possibilities

The experiences students have from early childhood into early adulthood need to provide opportunities for understanding, developing, practicing and refining these skills and processes.  Drawing from works such as Costa, Kallick and Anderson’s Habits of Mind, Wagner’s seven survival skills and the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, Gregory and Kaufeldt touch on ideas for supporting students’ development of the metacognitive processes necessary for self-regulation and reflection.  Having experience with these ideas in my work with teenagers for over 25 years, I can attest to the difference explicit and intentional practice can have with students over time.  Through additional work with elementary schools I have seen amazing progress with even young children on their capacity to plan, self-regulate and reflect.
The authors then move to level 4 of Webb’s Depth of Knowledge, Extended Thinking.  This level requires both the critical thinking skills of research, analysis and evaluation but also the ability to synthesize information and learning to imagine and create work of your own.  Returning to the SEEKING system discussed previously as the driving force of our inner motivations, Gregory and Kaufeldt state:  “We are born ready to SEEK new ideas, to imagine, and to create.”  We derive joy and pleasure from the experience which drives us to seek those experiences again.  Yet, the pure joy we see in small children as they draw and dance and act from their imagination is often squelched as the realities of competition and evaluation enter the world of their creations.  And even more, as has been noted by Ken Robinson and others describing a “creativity crisis,” schools provide little if any time or support for the world of creativity.  In our standards based, test driven system there is little emphasis on learning or creating simply for the joy and fun of it.  Yet our very existence as a society demands these creative skills more every day.
Although most traditional classrooms with a test driven curriculum provide little support or opportunity for the type of creative use of imagination Gregory and Kaufledt are describing, there are certainly many changes which are moving us in the right direction.  Chapter 5 contains descriptions of project based learning, problem based learning and resources for additional information on Self- Organized Learning Environments.  As the number of schools providing these experiences expands and the results become more evident, we can only hope that both our educational system and society will embrace the understanding that the educational system designed for the 20th century is poorly prepared to support the learners of the 21st century.  But as I noted in my piece on Authentic Learning in the Digital Age, available on TMLC for community members, each educator has the responsibility and the opportunity to make the changes you can in your context to do what you know is right for your students.
What are you doing to stimulate the creative and problem-solving abilities of your students?  How can you incorporate student learning projects and problem oriented tasks in your context?  How do you model and require your students to practice the executive functions of planning, monitoring, self-regulating and reflecting?

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