I’ll Take “Executive Function”

by Joel Lurie Grishaver

Imagine that “Hebrew School” could promise parents that their child’s life would be happier. That they would do better, change jobs fewer times, fewer divorces and less chance of a criminal record. Imagine promising success in life and a lot of other good future stuff. We can make their promise, if we focus on cognitive development. And we can use Jewish texts and Jewish sources to do so.

Executive Function

“The theory of executive function is not an exact science, nor is it a standard diagnostic category. Even so, it can provide a framework in which parents and professionals can understand a child’s level of cognitive ability”  (Stanberr, Kristin, “Executive function: A new lens for viewing your child”). This theory of how we mentally navigate life offers a new way to view a child’s strengths and struggles. It also points a future direction for Jewish Education.

Ellen Galinsky wrote a book called Mind in the Making: The seven essential life skills every child needs. She takes Neuroscience and breaks it down into material manageable by most parents and most teachers. She takes executive function and breaks it down into seven simple skills. This is prefontal cortext stuff that weaves together our social, emotional, and intellectual capacities.

  1. Focus and Self-Control. This is our ability to pay attention, to not be distracted, and it where we remember the rules.
  2. Perspective Taking. This is where we develop empathy and view things from different points-of-view.
  3. Communicating. This involves not only language skills, but our ability to grasp what images, metaphors, points-of-view will best communicate our insights to others.
  4. Making Connections.  Making Connections involves figuring out what is similar and what is different. (“One of these things is not like the other.”) Figuring out how one thing connects to another. This is associative and comparative thinking.
  5. Critical Thinking. This is our ability to evaluate and to decide what evidence we are going to use to make decisions.
  6. Taking on Challenges. According to Dr. David Bryfman, challenge is a definitional part of Experiential Education. Here is our ability to tackle the new and the difficult.
  7. Self-Directed. Engaged Learning. Self-Direction is also an element of Experiential Education.  It is where that which is demanded is transcended by that which were want to seek.

Before I go any further, I want to give a shout out to Marci Dickman, the Director of Life Long Learning at Congregation Beth Emet in Evanston, Illinois. I was privileged to watcher us this book and this material to train her teachers.

The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer

Neal Stephenson is a writer of speculative fiction. One of his creations is the “Dynabook”. In his novel, The Diamond Age, he comes up with the idea of a tablet like book that is continually programmed and acted out so that the protagonist can grow her executive functions. Actors and writers are always in the background creating the next part of the story the protagonist needs.

It is not impossible for computers to activate and grow executive functions. But empathy and the rest of these skills are best modeled and reinforced by real people.

The Best Argument for Textbooks

I have a friend who sent me this link: Increase Student Engagement by Getting Rid of Textbooks. It is written by Shelly Blake-Plock, a high school classroom teacher from Maryland. He argues:

As a teacher, I’d say that the best things textbooks do are a) make my life easier by supplying me with reading passages, questions, and projects for the kids to do, b) organize the class material in such a way that we can stay on a steady course, and c) make it easy for colleagues and I teaching the same classes to “keep on the same page,” so to speak. And in all three cases, the textbook serves the teacher quite well.

What I know about complementary Jewish education is that it is powered by teachers who need all the help they can get. A good collection of texts and a function sense of organization can improve most Jewish classrooms. If you want to see how this works, look at Experiencing the Torah or Torah Toons I or You Be the Judge or The Jewish Law Review.

The Jewish Present

In his sci-fi novel Martian Time Slip Philip K. Dick envisions an arcade where the games are actually computers with personalities who interact with the students. E.g. it is possible to play with Albert Einstein. We can all envision better Jewish futures. The question that needs to stand is “Can we build a great Jewish present?”

The reality is that today, the majority of Jewish students will be educated in classrooms fronted by teachers. That is the frustration and that is the reality. They are not the best teachers, most are untrained and part time. Many are volunteers. They are hard to gather and harder to train. But they are what we have to work with.


Shelly Blake-Plock, the teacher who argued against textbooks actually understands Ellen Galinsky. Neuroscientists have conducted studies that show that success Executive Functions can predict success in later life better than academic text scores. While Head Start students do not do better than non-Head Start students in their later years in public schools, they do much better in life. Here is where the Executive Functions really kick in.  (Screening and Assessment in Head Start)

We have to work with what we have. Our best resource is teachers who want to succeed—who care about the future of the Jewish people. If we can get our teachers to focus on executive functions, if we can get them to exude: Focus and Self Control, Perspective Taking, Communicating, Making Connections, Critical Thinking, Taking on Challenges, and Self-directed Engaged Learning we can promise parents that “Hebrew School” can lead to student success in life. Not a bad promise. The good news, all of these can be learned by studying Jewish texts—something that should be the core of what we do.