Human beings are unique among animals in that we have we have enormous capacity to make choices about how we direct our mental resources. We can set goals for ourselves, evaluate different problem-solving strategies, redirect our efforts when meeting with obstacles, and anticipate and weigh the possible consequences of different courses of action. We can delay gratification impulses (e.g. going out to have fun with friends) when working toward an important goal, and we can even delay the gratification of basic biological urges (such as the need to eat or drink, or to use the bathroom) when working on tasks that are important to us.
These (and related) skills rely upon the operation of a par t of our brain known as the prefrontal cortex (PFC), and it is through the operation of the PFC that we exert control over, and manage the operations of, other cognitive resources. From an evolutionary perspective, the PFC is the most recent par t of the human brain to evolve, and it could be said that it is the par t of our brains that make us most human. Your PFC is a kind of “chief executive officer” of you, and, in fact, the class of operations that originate with activity in the PFC are known as executive functions.
Psychologists typically describe executive functions in terms of relatively high-level behaviors, and make reference to such things as concentration, organisation, planning, predicting, monitoring, strategising, refining/adjusting, and maintaining persistence. Dr. Russell Barkley, a leading researcher on ADHD, describes executive functions as “actions we perform to ourselves and direct at ourselves so as to accomplish self-control, goal-directed behavior, and the maximisation of future outcomes.”
Neuroscientists (who usually are concerned with deeper, more neuroanatomically-linked behaviors) generally agree that the core components of executive functioning include Inhibitory Control (the ability to “put on the brakes,” or refrain from acting on impulses), Working Memory (the ability to hold information in your mind and manipulate it), and Cognitive Flexibility (the ability to shift behavior with changing environmental demands).
As you might imagine, a healthy PFC that is able to demonstrate well-developed executive functions is a very handy thing to have. In fact, research has shown that early development of executive functions is a better predictor of later academic performance than is early acquisition of academic skills. These capabilities are essential for ensuring rewarding life outcomes. Children and adults with well-developed executive skills are typically good at doing things, while those with poor development of these capabilities typically are not as successful (and are sometimes diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder).
If you are familiar with Dr. Montessori’s concept of Normalisation, you probably can see some striking overlap between executive functions and what Dr. Montessori described in her book, The Absorbent Mind, as “the most important result of our work.”
According to Montessori, the attributes of a normalised child include:
1) The ability to concentrate;
2) Love of work;
3) Self-discipline; and
4) Positive social behavior.
While Montessori’s concept of normalisation includes aspects of emotional and social development that are not considered in most descriptions of executive functions, it is easy to see that development of executive function is an essential foundation for the full expression of normalisation.
Does Montessori education, in fact, contribute to the development of executive functions? Indeed it does. As shown by Lillard (2006), children randomly assigned to an AMI-accredited Montessori school (compared to those randomly assigned to a traditional educational environment) showed significantly stronger performance on a standardised, laboratory measure of executive functioning, and also demonstrated better self-control and social behavior during unsupervised time on the playground – an important demonstration of the practical implications of well- developed executive functions.
Prior work has already linked the concept of executive functioning to normalisation (see Lloyd, 2011) and it will be increasingly important for advocates of Montessori education to understand the relationship between these concepts. Interest in executive functions (and their development) will continue to grow, and Montessorians can rightly claim that Montessori was thinking about and developing methods that foster development of executive functions over a century ago.