Student Well-Being Letter to the Editor

Teach Executive Function

February 11, 2020 1 min read
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To the Editor:

I enjoyed the article about math anxiety (“The Myth Fueling Math Anxiety,” Big Ideas special report, Jan. 8, 2020). As a neuroscientist who specializes in how the core skills of executive function promote rigorous math learning, it is particularly gratifying to see EdWeek cover this topic.

In the last paragraph, the article says, “There aren’t ‘math people’ and ‘non-math people,’ only those who work through the challenging lesson and those who surrender too soon.” The ability to do this is a great example of executive function at work.

Executive functions are like the air traffic control system of the mind: They give us agency over our thoughts, attention, emotions, and behavior. They allow us to control our learning and our lives, and maybe even supercharge math learning. Every student is a powerful learner. In fact, we don’t need to teach students to learn. They’re wired for it.

Inside each student lies the foundations to learn and master anything. But somehow this message isn’t taught to young learners, particularly in math for girls, students of color, and students from low-income communities. The world bombards them with subtle (and not-so-subtle) messages about what society thinks they aren’t capable of achieving. This can hijack their executive functions and leave them less available to learn math, which can start a negative spiral that may become internalized as a part of their identity, and shape who they believe they are.

Every child should know their innate abilities, to know how to use them to take control of their learning, and to have every opportunity to learn anything, including rigorous math. Why? Because all students have powerful minds that deserve to be challenged and given opportunities to learn rigorous math. And because success in math is critical to many factors for success in young adulthood.

Melina Uncapher

Neuroscience Professor

University of California, San Francisco

EF+Math Program Director

NewSchools Venture Fund

Oakland, Calif.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 12, 2020 edition of Education Week as Teach Executive Function


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