Tag Archives: executive functions

MOB: Teaching Prioritization

Term: MOB – Meat On Bones

I’ve committed myself to teaching students the Extreme Ownership “Laws of Combat” as our “Laws of Learning” this year in my secondary math courses.

In the first quarter of the year, my focus is to teach them two of the four: “Prioritize and Execute” and “Simple.” That’s not a plan, it’s just a new school-year’s resolution. It’s time to start figuratively “fleshing” things out. Thus the phrase I will use from now on: “Meat on Bones,” abbreviated MOB.

I’m not coming to this via my career as an educator — I found all of this by becoming a fan of Jocko Willink, one of the co-authors of Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win, and a secondary member of Eric Weinstein’s “Intellectual Dark Web.” This began as self-improving entertainment for me — learning about leadership from awesome people — but once I took a look at the search engine results for “teaching students to prioritize,” I realized that this is not new territory for teachers — or, at least, it shouldn’t be.

Teachers: have you ever heard of “executive functions”? If the answer is yes, then you are ahead of me on this path. I had not ever heard of executive functions. This is not good. Teachers should spend significant time learning about executive functions and how to teach them intentionally¬† — I have only been teaching them tangentially. This is not good.

Executive functions are:

  1. Inhibition — stopping behavior, actions, and thoughts at appropriate times
  2. Shift — moving freely between situations, thinking flexibly to respond correctly
  3. Emotional Control — modulating emotional responses to rationalize feelings
  4. Initiation — beginning a task, generating ideas, responses, and strategies
  5. Working Memory — holding information to complete a task
  6. Planning and Organization — managing current and future-oriented demands
  7. Organization of Materials — imposing order on work, play, and storage
  8. Self-Monitoring — monitoring one’s own performance and measuring it

“Prioritize and Execute” is Initiation.

This list came from an article at LD Online by Joyce Cooper-Kahn and Laurie Dietzel titled “What is Executive Functioning?”

I believe that, if we teach students to do these things well, they can learn anything they want to know. If I prioritize and execute in my own classroom, regardless of content, executive functions must come first: they are the key to learning how to learn. Most importantly, students who master these things are capable of imagining, selecting, planning, and executing plans that lead to achieving long-term goals.

If I’m a teacher at all, then this is a very high priority in teaching every subject: in fact, I’m not sure how we can get students to do challenging and worthwhile tasks without teaching executive functions. Perhaps this is why teaching students to do authentic projects well is such a challenge. Are we making these things priorities? Shouldn’t we?

I now realize that The Laws of Combat taught to U.S. Special Forces (or at least, by them) are militarized versions of executive functions. “Combat is reflective of life, only amplified and intensified,” according to Willink. When we strip down the basic combat doctrine of Navy SEALs, we find those executive functions waiting for us. They are not new, but the clarity created by combat experience illuminates them dramatically, which is why you should read Willink’s and Babin’s book.

Teaching Prioritize and Execute:

Here are some ideas for teaching this Law of Learning:

Discuss prioritization in the context of note-taking.

I’m planning to teach my students to take notes in the Cornell Notes format this year, so this will fit seamlessly into that lesson.

Discussion Prompt: “How do you select what to record as you take notes?”

Discussion Prompt: “When you did well on a unit, how did you decide what to study?”

Give a slide show of photos, paintings, or video clips.

Discussion Prompt: What do you think is the most important detail or big idea? (ask for each item in the show)

Select three motivational memes you think are “good.”

Rank them in order, from good to best.

Discussion Prompt: “What qualities did you use to decide how to rank them?”

Create an exemplary outline that designates prioritized main topics and lesser subtopics.

This complements note-taking when we discuss the purpose of keeping notes.

Create three different versions of this outline, blocking out some and less crucial content for struggling note-takers and more and more important content for advanced note-takers.

Have students use these outlines for both note-taking and study.

Give students opportunities to prioritize and experience consequences of failure.

Guide reflection and improvement through revision. Have students estimate progress, keep records of their progress, and revise schedules when they fall behind in achieving their benchmarks.

Give an assignment with clear expectations of the outcome and an analytic rubric of requirements, each with a point value. Have students make lists of tasks and put them into a sequence to follow from beginning to completion. Provide a template for scheduling the tasks.

Students assign a percentage value to each task according to information in the rubric and use these to aid in prioritization. Students record time spent on each element. Note that the weight of a task on the grade is not necessarily its priority: some lower-percentage tasks may have to be completed before high-percentage tasks can be attempted.

Set aside class time for reflection and revision of the plans during execution. Set aside time after completion for reflection and a final prioritization based on experience.

The ideas above came from an article at Edutopia by Judy Willis titled “Prioritizing: A Critical Executive Function.”

Time is an issue.

I can hear you think it. I understand. My own school year appears to have 158 days in it that could be devoted to instruction in a structured way, meaning that each is a full day of school with a full period of class assigned for the subject. At 52 minutes per period, we have 158 x 52 / 60 = 137 hours of instructional time in each of the three math courses I teach.

I think executive functions are the highest priority in my classroom and that they ought to be the highest priority in any classroom. If I give them the weight they deserve and teach them in parallel with the content I contracted to teach, then the right weight seems to me to be around 20-25% of our time, or 32 to 40 instructional days.

How will focusing so much on executive functions influence our progress through content?

First, this questions my prioritization. In my mind, there is no question that executive functions, which are skills everyone needs to succeed at life, are more important than math content. If priorities mean anything to us, then executive functions outweigh subject-specific content every time.

Second, I expect that, as students improve in executive functions, they will improve at assignments that are genuinely worth doing. I don’t know if they will do math exercises or worksheets better, but I really don’t care, as these things do not pop up regularly in adult or professional life.

I will, of course, teach my students the skills of mathematics and we will do exercises together to establish these skills — but I will also give them tasks to do that combine their developing executive functioning skills, which I stumbled into by way of my interest in leadership, with these mathematical concepts.

The challenge is to give students tasks to do that develop their math skills while also forcing them to use executive functions. Let’s give these a nice name: How about “worthwhile tasks?” Yes, that implies that assignments that do not force students to use executive functions might not be worthwhile. I’ll start putting up some fortifications on that ground. It feels like high ground to me.

How much content can we cover that way? Will time be an issue? My educated guess — at this point unburdened by research, though I will be building case studies and anecdotes all year — is that once we get executive functions ramped up, students who do well there will be able to move through content much faster while learning it more deeply. The executive functions will make the math I am teaching more accessible, even if we do not get to it this year, because, if these young people need that math, they will have the tools to acquire it independently. We may not get to all of it — but the students will have more and better tools for learning it or anything else they need to learn in the future.

Stay tuned to see how it works out.


Image Credits

Featured image from: CIO, address: https://images.techhive.com/images/article/2015/09/decision-pathway-question-where-to-go-prioritize-100613710-primary.idge.jpg