12 January 2008

Success Through Executive Function: Learning to Play

Executive Function is a set of mental skills that are just as responsible for a child's future life success as his IQ. Cognitive scientist Chris Chatam at Developing Intelligence recently discussed an early childhood education program that has shown success in teaching Executive Function to young children.
The efficacy of a Vygotskian "Tools of the Mind" educational program, developed in 1993 by Drs. Elena Bodrova & Deborah Leong, has now been conclusively demonstrated in Science (by Adele Diamond et al.) Tools of the Mind is targeted at improving executive function (EF), a construct closely related to "fluid intelligence" and hotly debated in the cognitive neurosciences.

The authors randomly assigned 24 teachers and 147 preschoolers to "Tools of the Mind" or a control curriculum for 1 or 2 years (!), with both groups matched for age, ethnicity, parental education, school resources, teacher training, teacher support and taking place in the same urban, low-income (<$25,000 per year) school district. Diamond et al. report that teachers in the "Tools" condition spent 80% of their time training EFs with "regulatory speech," dramatic play, and props for aiding memory and attention.

Children trained with "Tools of the Mind" showed an EF advantage on nearly every measure tested.

In fact, Diamond et al lost much of their sample when, after year 1, "Tools of the Mind" was so clearly superior to the control curriculum that one school stopped the experiment!
Developing Intelligence

Anyone with an interest in how effective early childhood education could change the world for the better, should read Chris' article and follow his links.

Both IQ and EF are important to future life success. While IQ is over 50% heritable and resists change, it is clear that EF (executive function) is at least as important as IQ in determining life success. EF appears to be teachable, through structured "play" as researched by Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky.

An interesting case study by Bodrova and Leong (pdf format) provides background on Vygotskian psychology and demonstrates the use of "Tools of the Mind" methods with children.

More on the application of Tools of the Mind at Metropolitan State College of Denver, and The Free Library.

Maria Montessori's method also captures much of the same "scaffolding" technique as Vygotsky's method, as modified by Bodrova (Tools of the Mind). Other methods, eg John David Garcia's, and Rudolf Steiner's, also incorporate directed creative play into their curricula.

These ideas have been around for several decades--in some cases over a century. The tragedy of modern government education's descent into inane incompetence is the tremendous waste of lives--waste of human potential. The only way to destroy that corrupt monument to failure is to bypass it.

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