Consider these two working environments?

At first glance you would be forgiven for thinking not a huge amount has changed in almost 80 years.

That is until you think about the tasks which are being completed and the skills required to complete them……. 

In 1940s these typists are simply typing the written words – what executive functions would they need? Sustained attention to keep on task, certainly; definitely working memory, to hold the written words in their head long enough to type them; maybe organisation, to keep their desk tidy and time management to turn up on time, but little more than that.  Fast forward almost 80 years what skills are needed in a 21st century office?  Yes, sustained attention and working memory are still key, but no doubt these employees will be also valued on their ability to meet deadlines (goal directed persistence and time management), plan their day and prioritise what to work on first (planning and prioritisation), get along with colleagues (response inhibition, flexibility  and emotional control), self-reflection and self appraisal (metacognition). In fact a 21st century employee’s executive functions will determine how good they are at their job and if they are promoted, therefore in-turn affecting their earnings and their quality of life.

Moreover, executive functions are not just valued in 21st century work places, they are covertly examined through the education system in public exams.  Take History A Level for example; it is not just how much you know about History which will get you an A*.  It is your ability to revise (which requires all executive functions). Your ability to prioritise (planning and prioritisation) the knowledge you have into a well structured essay (organisation), from a choice of topics (flexibility), under timed conditions (emotional control, response inhibition, time management). I have seen time and time again students, who excel at their subject verbally, struggling to get above a C grade because of poor executive functions. This would not be an concern were these skills being taught to students, but they are not; there lies the paradox. How can we test students on skills we are not explicitly helping them to develop?

Indeed, the requirement for executive functions is not unique to 21st century adolescents and adults, even primary school children and pre-schoolers are required to have good executive functions. Think about the pupil who is always in trouble for not paying attention in class (sustained attention), for talking out of turn (response inhibition), not moving on to the next task, (flexibility, task initiation) getting into fights (emotional control); how will their first experiences of education affect their learning on going? Are we doing enough to support these children?  Adele Diamond focuses her research in this area and has learned that in order to ensure academic success, it is more important to teach pre-schoolers executive functioning and problem-solving skills than to simply focus on math and reading alone. We are very excited to welcome her as our key-note speaker for our Summit on the 14th of June.

Mrs Victoria Bagnall – PGCE, MA (Cantab)
Director and Co-Founder of Connections in Mind

Join us on the 14th of June to hear from Adele Diamond about her research, and to discuss and learn from like minded people about what we can do to help develop executive functions in 21st century homes and schools.

14th June 2pm to 5.30pm
Foundling Museum, London.  WC1N 1AZ

Places are limited – book your ticket now.