Learning about our brains

An understanding of how our brains function reveals the need to approach learning in the right way. James Barnes of the PSB explains why strong 'executive function skills' can make all the difference.

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When we talk about learning and behaviour, it goes without thinking that this involves our brains; yet as parents and teachers, we don't tend to spend much time discussing the brain and how it functions. You don't need to be the proverbial brain surgeon to understand that the more we know about our brains, the more we can improve the learning experience for children and also how we parent.

The latest research tells us that the building blocks underpinning children's learning, and their behaviour, are cognitive functions called 'executive function'. This academic term can be misleading – suggesting a CEO, or bringing to mind business acumen – however executive function skills are in fact the mental skills associated with the pre-frontal cortex region of the brain above the eyes, which is key to controlling both effort and behaviour.

Our executive functions enable us to plan and schedule our time, make timely decisions, hold instructions in mind, get going on tasks and keep going when things are challenging. They are sometimes referred to as 'higher order thinking skills'. When a child struggles with an aspect of executive functioning it can present as a behavioural challenge or as a barrier to learning. For example, a child might find it hard to follow a teacher or parent's instructions to not shout out in class, to organise their books, to plan their revision and to stick to the plan. At home they might struggle to follow routines, to get ready on time, to get started or complete homework and to resist the temptation of getting distracted by their phone.

This often leads to friction between parents and children. 'Isn't this every child!?', with some justification you might exclaim and you would be right on two fronts. Firstly, all adults' executive function skills are not fully mature until their mid-twenties, so it is to be expected that children have not fully mastered these skills. And secondly, our abilities vary greatly amongst individuals. So, it is to be expected that all children have different strengths and weaknesses. Struggles with some aspects of executive functioning are also associated with different neuro-developmental conditions such as dyspraxia, dyslexia, autism and ADHD.

It is important that we consider and take into account children's executive function skills development. The reality is that to flourish in our education system, a child is expected to be able to self-assess their own progress, to make good decisions, to work independently, to manage distractions, to stay focused and to plan and prioritise. This is also true of the world of work. Despite these expectations, and research showing that self-executive function skills play an integral role in academic and professional success and wellbeing, we don't directly teach children what they are – or how to develop them.

"...to flourish in our education system, a child is expected to be able to self-assess their own progress... to plan and prioritise."

The good news is that with practice, children can be supported to strengthen these skills, even in the areas they find particularly demanding. Research in the field of neuroplasticity, also referred to as brain plasticity, shows that the brain adapts in response to our environment. We know that the first time a child learns something, a new neural pathway in the brain forms – and the more a child practises a skill, the stronger the connections become. It is tempting as parents and teachers to step-in and remove executive function skill barriers that prevent learning or cause friction at home by, for example, packing your child's bag or checking their homework diary – or for teachers to email a parent with important instructions rather than relying on a student to remember. What neuro-plasticity tells us is that for children who struggle with these skills, it is vital that we create opportunities to support them in practising them.

When it comes to assessment, I believe that outmoded models encourage schools to focus too heavily on knowledge acquisition and not enough on the skills they need to meet the demands of senior schools and the world of work. In contrast, the Pre-Senior Baccalaureate (PSB) is an assessment model that promotes the focused development of core skills. This is why I am so intrigued by the possibility offered by focusing on the student acquisition of executive function skills. These are many of the skills that Roy Anderson was referring to in the 2014 Pearson Report when he described the skills gap in education. For children growing up in an ever changing, ever distracting world, the sooner they can acquire executive function skills, the better.

We have set up a partnership with The Connections in Mind Foundation (CiMF) to understand the application of executive function skills for the PSB with our 34 member schools. CiMF trains teachers in the Activated Learning approach which enables them to continuously challenge children within lessons to identify when they need to apply these skills and what the barriers are getting in the way. We are convinced that integrating an awareness of the impact of executive function skills will enable teachers to support children to develop and assess the six 'learning powers' of independence, collaboration, communication, grit, reflection and risk-taking which underpin the PSB framework. Indeed, we hope that this project can be part of a larger movement within education, where parents and teachers are equipped with knowledge about how the brain functions and consequently develop a better understanding of children's learning and behaviour.

James Barnes Photo

James Barnes is PSB General Secretary.

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