Friday, November 18, 2011

Adam J. Cox Executive Function Workshop

Building the Eight Pillars of Capable Young Minds
Adam J. Cox, PhD

The purpose of this 3-hour workshop was to describe the Executive Function capabilities of children - particularly those in junior high - and to prescribe strategies that educators can use to help develop those capabilities.

Dr. Cox began his presentation by describing educators as the "architects of young minds, rather than the conveyors of content." His basic premise that our role as educators is to teach children how to think, using our content as a vehicle for that thinking.

He also stated that children are desperate to be taken seriously and implied that much misbehavior is the result of adults not taking children seriously - not listening to their desires and opinions or thinking about what they have to say. On the other hand, we also often have unrealistically high expectations for children - particularly in social domains (e.g., high levels of communication, interpretation, motivation, and interaction).

The most crucial event in the evolution of the human species is the ability to wait.” Jacob Bronowski, The Ascent of Man

A species that takes longer to develop is capable of greater cognitive complexity. The delay in development of today’s adolescents may be a function of the increasing complexity of today’s society and culture.

Electronica leads to limited auditory attention, heightened impatience and irritability, and social withdrawal.

Extinction of boredom and the demise of civility. Losing the ability to wait.

The stimulation we provide makes all the difference.

Boys: compliance feels submissive; boredom is stressful; high proportion of kinesthetic processors; respond well to kinematics; tendency to overlook detail

Girls: Typically know how to circumvent the “crisis” of boredom; More likely to enjoy auditory-based instruction; highly engaged by concepts with social relevance; May lose momentum in the vortex of perfectionism. (Study: estrogen linked to working memory)

Universal Fulcrum of Immediate Improvement
- Define and illustrate desired outcomes
- Continuous, explicit verbal feedback
- Positive feedback has greater impact on younger kids, negative feedback (critical) has a greater impact on later adolescents
- Make the process personal and emotional
- Assess consolidation daily
- One of the most important things they learn in the 5th and 6th grades is the ability to pick out the most important things and retain those

We are competing with a lifetime of electronica.

Teaching the “Trophy Generation”
- Need for constant fun and stimulation
- High level of self-absorption
- Persistent need for affirmation
- Insistence that “anything is possible”
- Conflation of electronic and real experience

Pillar I: Initiation
Likely Challenges
- Trouble getting started
- Confusion about priorities; doesn’t put first things first
- Inability to delay gratification
Possible Solutions
- Collaboratively build and reinforce classroom and study routines
- Explain how to determine priorities (could supply a rubric for decision-making)
- Parcel large or complex tasks into smaller steps
- “Chunk” time; use timers as necessary
"I want to be not just a good teacher, but your teacher"

Pillar II: Attention
Likely Challenges
- Trouble inhibiting distraction; a wandering mind
- Selective attention
- Insufficient Energy
Possible Solutions
- Narrow the field of attention (selective seating, strategic study center, deny visual and auditory stimulation; offer exercise or quiet relaxation (15 min on, then break, then 15 min on – will finish work better and faster)
- Encourage self-monitoring (use on-task charts to build two-tier thinking, make interval check-ins routine (personal buzzer/timer), Invite kids to be a part of school planning – today’s kids are generally not reliable self-monitors/evaluators – we need to teach and encourage this)
- Change learning channel frequently (sustained auditory attention is a major challenge for many 21st century children)
- Consider administering school-wide learning style assessments (theory that guides the instruction in your school); invite students to participate in school planning (taking them seriously, ideas incorporated into the plan, get better results faster)
Tone + Tempo = Synchrony of a Well “orchestrated” classroom
Making strategic use of
Vocal tone, rate and rhythm of speech, vocabulary, relevance, physical proximity, projected energy, facial expressions, gestures – attention emerges from the spaces between us rather than from within us

Classroom clouds
- Facts and knowledge
- Subjectivity of students (Personal)
- Co-regulated learning relationship – essence of application of executive function in the classroom

Pillar III: Cognitive Flexibility
Likely Challenges
- Problems changing tempo
- Reluctance to shift focus
- Colliding time-frames
Possible Solutions
- Activate two-tier thinking (ask for predictions about what steps will be required and how long they will take; provide immediate, non-judgmental feedback)
- Announce transitions well in advance, and allow ample time for organization (Don’t teach up to the bell – leaves people in chaos and they don’t have time to synthesize)
- Support synchronized tempo by animating instruction
- Provide an optimal example (sit student next to another s/he admires with better flexibility)
- Always reinforce effort more than ability or accomplishment (Carol Dweck, Mindset) because...
- effort is the foundation of a positive work ethic
- easier to take ownership of effort than talent
- potential for praise is infinite compared with attainment of a specific goal (effort is recyclable)
Many kids understand but never seem to "know" course content due to lack of repetition and rehearsal (the only way to consolidate memory). But this does not have to be boring and rote - think multimodal. Kids just need more experience with the content. Going off on tangents is a valuable instructional technique, but not a good learning technique. When we teach, we need to approach the topic from 360 degrees – present the idea in a lot of different ways, don’t get off topic. Repetition and rehearsal are irreplaceable pathways to better connected brains (neural networks of retention)

Pillar IV: Working Memory
Likely Challenges
- Forgets what s/he knows
- Difficulty multitasking
- Tests below ability level
Executive Function helps produce knowledge through the following 4 steps:
- Stimulation-Focused Thought (micro)
- Overlearning (this is a key "tipping point" in the era of distraction and where we nurture the neural architecture of intelligence)
- Reflection and Insight (macro)
- Consolidation
Capable minds learn to toggle between micro and macro cognitive frames
Possible Solutions
- Emphasize overlearning strategies
- Students should write or type notes immediately
- Ask for immediate, articulated recall of information
- Work toward assessing consolidation daily
Maximizing memory:
- Chunk new information
- Repetition and rehearsal (over-learning)
- Short, frequent quizzes
- Make & organize index cards
- Study right before going to sleep
- Review first thing in the morning

Collaborative tracking boosts productivity and academic esteem. Public tracking done artfully and sensitively – we don’t want to harm kids, we want to build community and motivate

Pillar V: Organization
Likely Challenges
- Pervasive clutter and chaos
- Unconstructive multitasking
- Constantly forgets to bring things home
Possible Solutions
- Support learning and retention by making time and space for organization
- Review and sign-off on student agendas daily
- Ask for an explanation of unconventional organization systems (you never know - they may think of something better!)
- Teach how to use an "end-of-day" checklist
- Provide peer tutor or professional coach if needed
Teach study skills! Note-taking, note cards, setting up a study space, etc.

Pillar VI: Planning
Likely Challenges
- Poor time awareness
- Trouble with sequencing
- Doesn’t visualize relevant outcomes
Possible Solutions
- Help articulate goals and sequencing strategies
- Explain how to think and work backward from a goal
- Identify the key elements of a plan (time needed, materials, equipment, resources)
- Provide daily contact with measured progress in a context of caring (MUST improve my feedback time!!!)

Pillar VII: Self-monitoring (Social)
Likely Challenges
- Self-absorption gets mistaken for self-centeredness
- Awkward interpersonal skills
- Problems with code-switching
Theory of Mind – each child has unique experience that is different from others’ experiences, we are developing more sophisticated levels of Theory of Mind as we develop. The better we get at that, the better we get at EQ.

To help students have more "conversational courage" we can:
- Focus on topics of interest and/or confidence
- Maintain a matter-of-fact tone (don't get emotional)
- Limit eye contact (often more willing to talk to us if we're not looking at them)
- Make conversation a background to an activity (e.g., toss a ball)
- Adopt the persona of a coach

Students need to learn both social rules (e.g., conversational distance, turn-taking, eye contact) and social cognitive skills (use of conventions such as greetings, voice modulation/emotion detection, giving compliments, goal-directed transitions/code-switching)

Possible Solutions
- Integrate social conventions into casual conversations and classroom instructions (state: "make sure to spend equal time listening to one another and signal if you like your partner's ideas")
- Privately suggest alternative behaviors
- Employ non-verbal signals to avoid embarrassment
- Begin with an explanation, but end with rehearsal (let them practice social skills!)

We must understand what identity kids want to identify with if we want them to ascend with us. Once we unlock what they want to feel about themselves, everything else becomes logical.

Kids are masters of decoding your voice. Your voice indicates whether you are a coach or a boss. They respond better to coaches.

We tend to focus on intellectual skills and achievement at school and are neglecting executive function, cognitive skills, and personality.

Pillar VIII: Emotional Control
Likely Challenges
- Spontaneous, strong emotion - with little provocation
- Personalizes the non-personal (takes it personally)
- Chronic irritability, moodiness
Possible Solutions
- Project empathy before attempting to correct emotional problem (attentive listening)
- Minimize direct eye contact, use a matter-of-fact tone
- Explain acceptable ways for expressing dissatisfaction
- Work toward converting disruptive students into classroom school leaders

Bottom line: I need to focus my instruction and allow for repetition and rehearsal - perhaps not as much elaboration and "going off on tangents." I also need to integrate explicit use of executive function on a daily basis - stop and review, end-of-day checklist, frequent smaller assessment, talk openly about time management and content organization. I MUST be better about getting quick and specific feedback to my students so that they can accurately reflect on their progress and improve over time.

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