Three Strategies for Using the Arts to Build Student Executive Functions

In online magazine Edutopia, we happened to come across a blog post by JUDY WILLIS MD, which we find very inspiring for Teaching Artists, Teachers and Students. 

Before information can be processed through executive functions, it must reach the prefrontal cortex (PFC), where higher order thinking occurs. The pathway to the PFC has potential roadblocks in the form of an information intake filter and an emotional switching station that determines if input reaches the PFC or is diverted to the lower, reactive brain. Embedding the arts into instruction and assessment promotes flow through these filters, builds growth mindset, and strengthens the actively developing executive functions.

1) The Arts Get Past the Brain’s Attention Filter to Promote and Sustain Attention

All learning enters the brain as sensory input, but not all sensory input is allowed in through the brain’s attention filter. The brain admits only about one percent of the sensory input available to it each second. It therefore behooves teachers to be sure their instruction “makes the cut.”

This involuntary filter is in the low brainstem, and is called the reticular activating system (RAS). It gives priority to novel, unusual, curious sensory information. Listening to lectures and doing drills and worksheets are not novel or curiosity-evoking sensory experiences. That said, you can still snag students’ attention by incorporating the types of sensory input that is favored for RAS selection. Here are ways you can incorporate some of the stimuli that get priority admission to the brain:

  • Use color
  • Use movement (through your own actions and with students)
  • Incorporate music
  • Incorporate changes in your voice
  • Include curious objects
  • Create positive anticipation of an activity that has previously been associated with pleasure

Strategy 1 in the Classroom

You’ve seen professional speakers engage an audience by starting off with humor or a question that promotes curiosity. Starting a lesson with something to immediately engage students is equally important. You can promote attentive intake with curious or compelling photographs, drawings, music, video clips of scenes of from theatrical productions, or by reading a book using different voices for different characters. Once the intake filter opens to your novel, unusual or curious sensory information, it is likely that the academic information following andrelating to these openings will be “selected” by this involuntary attention filter.

Click here to read full blog post…

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About arts2grow

Arts to Grow (ATG) engages children in the artistic process by providing free, highly tailored and professionally taught arts education programs to youth in the New York metro area who have limited access to the arts. Arts to Grow collaborates closely with schools and community groups to match performing and visual arts programs and Teaching Artists with the specific needs of each group of children. ATG serves the community and society by helping children develop their full potential through the arts.

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