Executive Function: What is its Relationship to Higher-Order Thinking?

As defined by the Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University:

Executive function (and self-regulation) skills are the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. ‘…the brain needs this skill set to filter distractions, prioritize tasks, set and achieve goals, and control impulses.’

These skills rely on three main brain functions:

Working Memory, which governs our ability to retain and manipulate distinct pieces of information over short periods of time.

Mental Flexibility, which helps us to sustain or shift attention in response to different demands or to apply different rules in different settings.

Self-Control, which enables us to set priorities and resist impulsive actions or responses.

It’s helpful to regard executive function as a set of mental capacities and regard thinking skills as mental abilities. People with higher levels of executive function have a greater capacity for higher-order thinking than people with lower levels. However, that capacity will be unrealized if a person is not able to use higher-order thinking skills. In addition, greater mental capacity (i.e., higher levels of executive function) facilitates the ability to use more advanced levels of any and all thinking skills, whether lower-, middle-, or higher-order.

In the following analogy, a computer represents executive function and the person using the computer represents thinking skills. An inexpensive, basic-level, slow computer has limited capacity. It is difficult, but not impossible, to do sophisticated computing if the user has strong computer abilities and a lot of patience. If the user does not have strong computer skills, the computer still has practical utility to perform basic functions such as word processing, organizing files, sending and receiving email, etc. Here, there is a good match between the computer and the user. A high-end computer has tremendous capacity to do many things quickly. But the user with only basic computer abilities will not be able to take advantage of its capacity, while the user with strong computer abilities can find almost unlimited uses, including many that are unique and creative. Again, here there is a good match between the computer and the user.

Preschool Example:

While Teacher Tony is reading Caps for Sale to the group, the fire alarm rings. Fortunately, it is just a fire drill. Fifteen minutes later, when everyone is back in the classroom, Teacher Tony asks, “Where did we leave off in our story? What was the last thing that happened?” This is a challenging, more advanced lower-order thinking task (recall from memory) for most preschoolers because the interruption was long, emotional, complex, and particularly distracting. It was a little frightening, it involved following multiple directions, required physical movement and a change of environment, and was an uncommon, untypical activity.  The children with a high level of focused attention (engaged while they were listening to the story before the fire drill) and with a strong working memory, were able to recall the last thing that happened in the story:  the peddler woke up and saw that monkeys were wearing his caps.

 Third Grade Example:

As part of a science/math unit on scientific methods and basic data analysis, third graders in Ms. Rodriguez’s class work in small groups to create a process and tools (e.g., questionnaires, surveys, tally sheets) to get the opinions of students in the school about how to address common concerns and problems. Each group takes a different issue such as the quality of food in the cafeteria, recesses being too short, teachers giving too much homework, bullying on the playground, etc. They will also collect information about each student’s gender, grade level, birth order, number of siblings, and favorite school subject. Ms. Rodriguez knows that each group needs at least one student whose good self-control gives them the capacity to use advanced lower- and middle-order thinking skills to plan, organize, and keep the group on track. In other words, attend to details. Each group also needs at least one student whose strong working memory and mental flexibility gives them the capacity to use higher-order thinking skills to hypothesize outcomes, anticipate potential problems, generate ideas, synthesize and interpret information, and analyze the data. In other words, see the big picture.