Is ‘executive function’ more important that IQ?

Newsweek reports here on the concept of executive function and its applications in designing and carrying out instruction.  Given the increasing visibility within the academy of theories of multi-dimentional intelligence, such as Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligence and Daniel Goleman’s work on emotional intelligence, it’s nice to see this article in a ‘pop’ news weekly.

Most people can recall a kid from grade school who couldn’t stay seated, who talked out of turn and fidgeted constantly, whose backpack overflowed with crumpled handouts and who always had to ask other kids what the homework assignment was. Those kids weren’t bad kids, but they seemed to have absolutely no self-control, no internal disciplinarian to put a brake on their impulses, to keep their attention focused. Not surprisingly, they were almost always lousy students as well.

This kind of student has been tagged with a variety of labels over the years: antisocial personality, conduct disorder, stupid. But recent advances in psychology and brain science are now suggesting that a child’s ability to inhibit distracting thoughts and stay focused may be a fundamental cognitive skill, one that plays a big part in academic success from preschool on. Indeed, this and closely related skills may be more important than traditional IQ in predicting a child’s school performance.

The scientific name for this set of skills is “executive function,” or EF. It’s an emerging concept in student assessment and could eventually displace traditional measures of ability and achievement. EF comprises not only effortful control and cognitive focus but also working memory and mental flexibility—the ability to adjust to change, to think outside the box. These are the uniquely human skills that, taken together, allow us keep our more impulsive and distractible brain in check. New research shows that EF, more than IQ, leads to success in basic academics like arithmetic and grammar. It also suggests that we can pump up these EF skills with regular exercise, just as we do with muscles.

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