Executive Function: How School Fits In

Tests, quizzes, writing assignments, and classroom discussions are tools that teachers use to evaluate just how neatly and deeply students have stored content knowledge in their brains. They range from multiple choice and short answer questions to word problems and essays. The former assess a student’s rote knowledge - how well he or she can recall a definition or perform arithmetic; the latter gauge children’s ability to actually use information in order to answer a question or solve a problem.


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Genuine learning occurs when someone can build their understanding of a given concept from the “ground” up, from knowledge through evaluation; it is the difference between cramming for an assessment by memorizing a collection of vocabulary terms, and giving your mind time to learn those words in context, with the support of graphic organizers, outlines, mnemonic devices, and other memory aids. While the latter may take more time and effort in the short term, that energy will pay off when it comes time to study for a mid-term or final exam because even if you don’t remember everything, you have an efficient set of familiar, useful resources to fill in the gaps. By taking the time to build a strong, connected, sticky schema the first time around, students can avoid the chaos and anxiety that comes with last-minute academic efforts.


“But I have too much reading to do, too many assignments to finish, too many exams to study for. I just don’t have enough time.” Sound familiar? It does to me. And the truth is, students do have a lot on their plate. Balancing studies with extra curricular activities, family responsibilities, and fun is hard. Effective time management strategies will make it easier, but it will never be easy. That is what separates the diligent, neurotic A students from their peers, brainiacs aside.


So then students must ask themselves if they are ready to commit to building positive learning behaviors.  Are they willing to put in the time and energy to build their executive function skills, so that they can become better students? Are they ready to more consciously identify learning goals, and then plan and follow-through with a strategy for their accomplishment?  Are they prepared to think flexibly about their progress, and reflect more thoughtfully on their achievements? The choice is theirs ...



Executive Function and Learning 101

While learning seems like a fairly automatic process, it is actually a pretty complicated one.  That’s because in order for a piece of information to really stick in the brain, and stay stuck, we have to make sure that it gets to the right “place.”  That way, when we need it to answer a question on a test, connect a string of ideas in an essay, or find our way from school back home, our mind knows where to find that piece of data in order to help us solve the problem at hand.  So the question is, how to we make knowledge more sticky?


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You can think of your brain like a giant closet, and yourself like a shopaholic.  All of the items you see in the store are like the data coming into your sensory memory.  You will purchase what looks good, and pass on the rest.  Then, your working memory will kick in to either decide if you want to return an item you are not so hot on, or if it is appealing enough to place in a pile with other similar articles or objects.  Last, once you have sorted through your purchases and identified “the keepers,” it is time for you to put everything away some place safe where you will be able to find it again.  This is like your long-term memory building schema.  Whether you sort your items by color, use, size, or shape doesn’t matter, so long as there is an organized system that you can rely on to track them down whenever necessary.  The stronger and more thoughtful that organizational strategy is the better.


When we learn, our brains are constantly working through this process.  Whether in a classroom, or sitting at home, we tune out distractions and extraneous information, focus on identifying the main ideas and supporting details or explanations, and create a strategy for building that information into a sticky schema.


For the brainiacs this happens fairly automatically; their minds are like a giant gob of super glue - everything just sticks.  The process isn’t quite so simple for those hard-working A students; instead, this group knows how to use subject-appropriate mnemonic devices, graphic organizers, and other processing tools to sort their knowledge into well-defined, easily accessible chunks.  Lacking an organized system for schema development, the last group of students, will try really hard to remember everything, but lose most of it in the process.  Some bits of knowledge will be passed over by the sensory memory as unimportant, other ideas won’t make it past the confines of working memory, and the parts that stick in long-term memory just won’t be enough to build a useful schema come test time.


That's why it is so important for instructors and parents to teacher their child how to learn.  Any successful person has developed a repertoire of organizational and study skills over the years.  Some are super efficient, others are less useful.  But, the point is to have a "toolbox" full of strategies, and to understand when, where, and how to apply each one.  More to come on this topic in the next post ...

The Big Picture: Executive Function

We have a lot of parents and students asking about executive function this year - What does it mean?  What can I do?  Why me?!  With so many questions floating around, it seemed like a great time to begin a blog series to fill in some of the holes, answer a few questions, and help parents and students get the gist of executive function.  So, without further ado ... 


What in the world does Executive Function mean?!


For many people, a slight bit of chaos is just a fact of life; they claim that there is a method to their madness, a hidden system that they know and understand. My brother, for example, was happy to put off his English paper until the night before it was due because “he worked better under pressure.” The same explanation applied for why he always woke up five minutes before he was supposed to leave the house for school, and why he chose not to use punctuation in his writing for a whole year in High School (and he was so good at arguing his point that he actually got away with it, which speaks for his ability to create an organized argument in the face of impending doom!). For these individuals, disorganization becomes comfortable because the task of generating an organized system for any sort of daily activity seems overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. The truth is, being a neat freak is the result of a series of behaviors, and not some innate, super special ability. Everyone is capable of being organized, if they put their mind to it (pun intended).


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In a nutshell, the term Executive Function relates to one’s ability to identify and create organizational structures.  In order to effectively accomplish a task, Type As either consciously or subconsciously follow an explicit series of steps to bring them from start to finish ...


Now, to relate this to the classroom, there are a few specific types of students.  There are the select few brainiacs that just get it.  They see a piece of information, understand it immediately, and remember it forever.  These kids are few and far between.  Another group of students are good old-fashioned hard workers.  Most of them get A’s with a few frustrating B’s thrown into the mix; they study like crazy, and they have well-developed, fairly neurotic systems for accomplishing their learning goals.  Last but not least, there are the smart students with poor executive function skills; their materials are disorganized, their reading and study skills are inefficient, and unlike their neat freak peers, they don’t have a reliable system to crack the “school code.”  All too often these kids are left feeling dumb, but they aren’t.


With the exception of the brainiacs, the academic playing field is pretty even (assuming that students do not have an underlying learning disorder).  The only difference between the A students, and the rest of the class is executive function.  Which, in reality, isn’t very fair.  Why should teachers and parents expect children to miraculously understand how their mind works, to discover useful learning strategies, and teach themselves “how to think like a brainiac”?!  In fact, that just seems kind of impossible.  So, how about we approach the situation more proactively?  By teaching students how their brain works, and what effective learning looks like, we can help them develop more efficient academic behaviors.   


And that will be the topic of our next post ... 

Design Squad Nation

At Smarten Up we are big on the DIY ethos.  We complete and problem-solve projects on a daily basis, and we always encourage our students to do the same.  But, hands-on thinking can be a bit intimidating, and thinking outside the box is often frustrating, which is why we were so happy to discover PBS's Design Squad Nation.


Design Squad Nation is all about bringing creative ideas to life.  With videos, games, and project ideas, this site has everything you need to plant the seeds for some engineering inspiration.  Plus, the site also includes a forum for kids to take part in and share solutions to all sorts of problem-solving challenges and daily annoyances.  The school year is just beginning, and now is the perfect time to get your child excited about applying their knowledge in order to create unique and exciting expressions of everyday curiosity!


Back to School Math Apps for All Ages

All-too-soon summer break is coming to an end.  Some students will be entering the classroom for the first time, while others will be returning to learn all sorts of new and challenging skills.  What do they all have in common?  Math!  Below are some of our favorite new apps to develop mathematical confidence in any child, toddler through tween ...


Preschool: Love to Count

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With the help of some cute little pirates, Love to Count presents Math within the context of real-world problem-solving.  This creative app reinforces the concept of numbers as indicators of place, time, weight and quantity, thereby enhancing a child's natural urge to find order in the world around them.  In this way, this great resource will help your little one develop a positive relationship with Math as an enjoyable, rewarding, and meaningful activity.  Solving these logical puzzles will play an important part in your child's development and help build their confidence at this early stage of schooling.



Elementary School: Mystery Math Town

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Your mission: Help a friendly and curious little ghost rescue the fireflies that are hidden in Mystery Math Town.  This fun app challenges players to use their arithmetic skills to unlock rooms and passages on an enchanting and mysterious journey.  But, what's great about this resource is that students don't just tap solutions, they have to actually build equations, thereby reinforcing problem-solving skills and number sense.  For each mystery solved, students will earn a talking portrait of one of the many the townspeople for their Gallery. Every picture has a story to tell, and the colorful cast of characters in Mystery Math Town have plenty to say!  Plus, the evolving plot provides a great motivator to keep students motivated and engaged.



Tweens and Beyond: Number Stax

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Number Stax is like Tetris, but with math. The app challenges players to drop numbers and operators in logical places--or swap them around--until the board is full.  This addicting game is great for improving computational speed and learning to plan logical sequences, in addition to practicing plain old arithmetic and problem-solving.  


Learn with Homer

There are zillions of literacy apps, a handful of good ones, and a few great ones.  Learn with Homer is a welcome addition to that last, and rather exclusive category.  Built by reading specialist, this thoughtful new app for children ages 3 - 6 has great educational potential.

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Homer is a friendly, intelligent pigeon, and he wants to take your child on a well-rounded reading journey that includes phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. Early readers will begin by practicing letter/sound identification and progresses to blended sounds and CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) words.   And while words are important, an understanding of their use and application, and vocabulary development is of equal value.  That is why Learn with Homer includes a vast library of fiction (from rhymes and songs to fables and short stores) and nonfiction texts.  


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One of the features that I love most is the fact that Learn with Homer allows parents to do more than just track their child's progress.   A great part about teaching a student to read is hearing and seeing all of their amazing thoughts and observations as written language becomes meaningful and accessible.  All too often these moments are lost, but this app has found a way to capture them - each student has a built-in pinboard that she can use to record her thoughts, draw pictures, and more!  It can be shared with friends and family through email or Facebook, ensuring that those precious observations can be treasured forever.


Learn with Homer is an amazing app that we can't wait to use more! 

DragonBox Algebra

The first time a child sees Algebra it can be really intimidating.  This subject they know as Math, which has been made up of solely numbers to date, suddenly has mysterious letters pop up.  But they aren't just xs and ys, they are actually variables that represent unknown values.  It is a pretty hard concept to introduce, let alone understand, but now it doesn't have to be.

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Here's how it works.  DragonbBox Algebra is made up of five worlds, each of which has 20 different levels.  As you progress through each one,  you help dragons grow from little hatchlings into full-sized majestic creatures.  To do this, you must isolate a little sparkling star on the screen onto its own side.  You see, each level of the game begins with a screen that is split in half (which is like the "equals" sign in an algebraic equation) and filled with a number of “cards” with different images on both sides.  On the first levels all you have to do is tap the cards and they magically disappear, but as you progress you’ll start to get some “night” versions of cards — drag these onto the “day” versions and they become green swirls, which you already know how to handle.  

After beating a bunch of these simple levels and building up some confidence, you’ll get a few cards down at the bottom which you have to drag onto the two sides of the screen — but whenever you drag a card onto one side, you have to also drag a copy to the other side as well (which refers to the golden rule that what you do to one side of the equation must also be done to the other). 


So you see, with DragonBox Algebra the scary looking Math is hidden by cute little pictures until you understand the concept.  This amazing app turns Algebra into problem-sovling fun, which is just what it should be.  With options for children as young as 5, and a more advanced version of the game for students 12+, take advantage of what is left of the summer and get your kids hooked on Math today!

Goldie Blox

Since the beginning of time (or so I can claim for the argument of this post) the wide world of toys has had pretty limited options for girls.  While little boys could choose between action figures, speedy vehicles, and all sorts of buildable creations, their female counterparts had lots and lots of dolls.  So while those boys were engaged in active creation, girls were pretty limited to imaginative play.  And over time that cognitive divide has pretty far-reaching implications - just look at the gender split in the field of STEM professions (though it has recently been discovered that girls are outperforming their male counterparts in class)!  That is why we are so excited about Goldie Blox, a new toy created specifically to inspire girls to take an interest in engineering.


The movement to get Goldie Blox on the shelves of stores worldwide has begun ... get yours today!

Apps to Develop Fine Motor Skills

While few things beat tactile experiences to develop fine motor skills, apps have a definite value within the field of occupational therapy - there is no set up or clean up involved, they can be used anytime, anywhere, by anyone, and the best of them offer valuable data that can help inform instruction and therapy.  As we always say at Smarten Up, these sorts of ed tech tools should be used in moderation as a complement to hands-on activities, but they are sure to add a nice bit of variety to the routine!

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Dexteria Jr. is a set of hand and finger exercises that will help children develop fine motor skills and handwriting readiness.  With three different engaging, animated exercises to help build strength, control, and dexterity, kids ages 2-5 will welcome this great workbook alternative.  Plus, the automatic tracking and reporting feature makes it easy for parents, teachers and occupational therapists to identify time on task and progress. You can even email the reports to other members of the student's educational team reports right from the app itself. 

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Pizza Factory for Kids masks learning with fun.  In the app, children must prepare pizzas - from making and rolling the dough, to chopping and placing the ingredients - for a whole range of customers (even some in outer space!) and they have to be sure to get the orders just right.  If they do, not only will kids earn points, they will also unlock new missions and challenges which is sure to keep them engaged.  At the same time that children will develop their hand-eye coordination and finger control, they will also gain practice following directions, understanding sequence, and measuring time.  

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In this case, the name says it all - Cut the Buttons.  Players are challenged to use their thumb and index finger to manipulate the on-screen scissors.  The goal of the game - cut off as many buttons from the fabric as you can, and catch them in the bucket at the bottom of the screen if at all possible.  Cut the Buttons pairs a simple premise with great graphics in order to create a really great motivating activity that is also super supportive of fine motor skill development!  

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Fruit has met its match with Fuit Ninja!  This simple arcade-style game challenges kids to skillfully swipe their digits across the screen to smash their favorite (or least favorite) fruits to smithereens!  While the theme and challenge of this app will keep children coming back to try to up their score, the control and dexterity they need to use in order to improve will support fine motor development.


These are just a few of our favorite fine motor apps, which is not to mention the other great letter-writing resources we've written about before.  What are some of your go-to tools for developing fine motor skills?!

Musical Express: the Sound Track

Not only is music a pleasure to listen to, it is also an excellent tool for learning.  Kids can use rythmic patterns to learn about fractions, they can create song lyrics to use as a mnemonic device to aid in memorization, music therapy can help children with communication, attention, motivation, and behavioral problems ... the possibilities are endless.  And into this well-established field enters the Sound Track.


In 2009, Ricardo Seola developed the concept for the Sound Track as a part his final project for his industrial design course at Scuolda Politecnica di Design in Milan.  "One of the most important aspects of my childhood was playing with musical toys," Seola remembers. "I wanted to come up with an intuitive toy, where every action made while playing it produced a clear musical reaction."  Not only does the Sound Track achieve this mission, it does so with a beautiful and developmentally supportive design.


"Kids love to see things happen right in front of their eyes, and hear things happen with their ears," Seola says, and with the Sound Track they will be able to do just that.  With adjustable notes on each track, children will be able to write songs by shifting pegs into different positions.  They can either organize the Sound Track to play classic nursery rhymes like "Mary Had a Little Lamb" using the included "song" book, or they can create tunes of their own, which the train will then play back for them as they push it along the track.  



The Sound Track should be available for purchase from Quirky later this year.