Do you want to know why executive functions are vital in the lives of twenty-first-century children? It’s simple: everything changes so fast that an education based solely on the accumulation of facts and figures won’t be of much use in 20 years, let alone 10. The skills necessary for success today are very different from those required in the recent past and will be changing even more quickly in the coming years. So the skills that can give children opportunities for meaningful and engaging work rely more on problem-solving, self-regulation, insight, sustained attention, and effort – in other words, executive functions.
We do not need to focus on teaching skills for jobs that are rapidly disappearing from our economy, such as manufacturing and agriculture. Students no longer need to memorize facts that they can easily access on the Internet, master cursive handwriting that will only be used for their signatures, or become experts at math calculation. A twenty-first-century education can no longer focus on rote memorization or learning specific skills because it is not likely that people will stay in one job throughout their entire lives. Instead, we need to teach children executive-functioning skills that help them to make better decisions, adapt more readily to the changes they will encounter in their world, think about their neighbors both next door and in other nations, and sort out and make sense of the information that bombards them from every direction in their lives.
The education and jobs of the future described by forward-thinking politicians (not those who are focused on coal mining and manufacturing) and leading educators are twenty-first century skills that require problem-solving, creativity, collaboration, efficiency, communication, complex critical thinking, and flexibility.]Most if not all of these skills are based upon executive functions. The Common Core State Standards (CCSS), which have been adopted by more than 40 states, call for a public school education that focuses on “how to learn and think” and how to analyze and apply what students have learned rather than memorizing or mastering specific content that will quickly become outdated. While the CCSS and twenty-first-century skills also mandate the need to learn core competencies such as reading, writing, and math skills, they place an emphasis on application rather than memorization.
I am not alone in arguing that it is time to emphasize these non-academic executive-functioning skills. Educational experts such as Ellen Galinsky, Po Bronson, Ashley Merryman, and Paul Tough have authored books on the skills necessary for success in the twenty-first century, using terms such as “life skills,” “character strengths,” “social and emotional intelligence,” “grit,” and “cognitive control.” There is a growing consensus among prominent writers and educators that we actively need to teach our children these non-academic or executive-functioning skills. Until recently, teaching executive-functioning skills to children was simply an incidental product of parenting and education. Fortunately, the new educational approaches of teaching twenty-first-century skills and the Common Core State Standards have translated into direct efforts to teach these skills.
In my next blog on executive functions, I will explore how leading authors are emphasizing the need for teachers and parents to focus on skills beyond basic academics and memorization of facts. While not all of these thought leaders use the term “executive functions,” they all assert that life skills such as executive functions are vital in the lives of twenty-first-century children.