Executive Functions and Independence

I was talking to a basketball coach at my new school about preparing our students (high schoolers) for life as adults.  He observed that while his players are very faithful to do what he tells them to do in practice and during games, they usually do not exercise their own judgment to make good decisions on the basketball court independently of the coach’s orders.  I mentioned a similar observation of students in my courses (even the more advanced ones):  that they are very responsible to do what I tell them to do, but generally will not work independently to do more than what I tell them to master the curriculum, although I remind them often of the necessity of independent work.  I also shared that his sports example also seemed like an symptom of underdeveloped executive functions.

At my previous school, it was common to have one or more students in in-school-suspension (ISS).  The teachers were responsible to send work to the students who were in ISS for that day.  I believed this duty was reasonable and so I was consistent to do it, but occasionally I would forget or just not get to it on a given day.  The ISS supervisors would lament how students always used not getting work from a teacher as an excuse to do nothing.  Even though students in ISS usually knew what chapter we were in or that we had a test coming soon, they would not exercise common sense to work independently by reading, working problems, etc., but just acted like they could not do anything unless the teacher told them what to do.

After noticing enough to detect a pattern, I had a sudden flash of insight:  the more rebellious the students were (which is why they were in ISS in the first place), the more dependent they were, ironically, on authority.  On the one hand they seemed to have contempt for my authority, but on the other they were completely dependent on my authority – they could not operate without me telling them exactly what to do. Without the abilities to self-govern, self-regulate/manage, set goals and make a plan to achieve them, etc., they needed me to largely do those things for them in my class.

It seems to me that having mature executive functions is essential for independent living vis-a-vis human authority.  The basis for living in a democratic, free society is the practice of self-government among the citizens.  Thus, the question arises:  could a generation-wide problem of underdeveloped executive functions undermine or weaken substantially the foundations of a democratic republic? Please comment!

Scripture clearly calls us to submit to human authority (I Peter 2), but I also believe we have a biblical basis for challenging it and a biblical calling to live freely under it.  I’d like to explore this topic more (with your helpful insights!).

Also, I plan to muse more on how to grow children to be independent self-governors.

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7 comments on “Executive Functions and Independence

  1. Drew says:

    Glad to see that you have your bog up and running Jeremy. This post reminded me of our conversation on 5th St near the Tech campus several months ago.

  2. Jason says:

    Do you think that the shift in educational thinking from (learning in order to gain knowledge and better oneself, and subsequently the world, as an end in itself) to (learning in order to grasp specific skills that will translate into a lucrative career) has anything to do with this?

    It seems to me, a person outside of the education system, that our society has devalued the importance of subjects like critical thinking, which include a great deal of independent decision-making, and we have substituted a system of cramming tons of info into our brains so that we can spit it back out in the most efficient (profitable) way.

    Thus, my reformulation of the question arises: could a generational and societal-wide problem of neglect in teaching the discipline of critical thinking from an early age lead to a serious challenge in underdeveloped executive functions amongst students from middle school to university which eventually culminates in the extinction of independent thought, a circumstance that so undermines or weakens the foundations of our democratic republic that we fail to be truly free?

    • Yes, I do and have pondered this before. The sad irony is that by focusing on content and technical facts to prepare students to compete in an advanced technological society, students end up being very unprepared: one because they do not retain the facts long-term and learn how to transfer them outside the classroom; two because the facts are always changing as knowledge accumulates rapidly and they have not learned how to learn independently and therefore cannot acquire new knowledge readily on their own.

      I have recently started telling my students, “don’t trust in me; trust in logic.” Often when they ask me if an answer to a problem is correct I ask them if they would defend it and how if someone challenged their answer. I do this to build confidence in the logical capacities God has given them for discerning truth.

      Your question highlights the seriousness of this problem. How can a political system based on self-government work if people lose the capacity to self-govern, a vital aspect of which is critical thinking?

  3. Brad says:

    I think a discussion on the foundations of logic would be interesting as well. The Founding Fathers also recognized that a culture of immorality leads to the end of liberty. The lack of critical thinking has contributed to this cultural immorality.

    • Good idea. There is definitely a relationship between rational thinking and moral living. Discerning the righteousness of an action or attitude, for instance, requires critical thinking. And we have a choice to think logically just as we have a choice to behave ethically. Would you care to submit a post?

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