How Creative Teaching Improves Students’ Executive Function Skills

How Creative Teaching Improves Students’ Executive Function Skills

Education January 11, 2018 / By Iman Rasti, Ph.D.
How Creative Teaching Improves Students’ Executive Function Skills

Teaching creatively, no matter the age group, grade level, or subject matter, not only improves the students’ creativity skills but also enhances their executive function networks.

… To be ready for college, the workforce, and a life in a technological society, students need the ability to gather, comprehend, evaluate, synthesize, and analyze an overwhelming volume of information … Executive Functions plus a strong base of core knowledge are the essential skills for success in today’s world. For students to think critically, collaboratively, and communicate effectively, these must be strengthened. To adequately prepare for success in careers or higher education, students need guided opportunities to construct strong networks of executive functions. Without this preparation to develop executive functions during the school years, students can fall short. They may lack requirements for higher education and the competitive job market including the skill sets needed for cognitive flexibility, successful communication, collaboration, or creative innovation.

These were the opening remarks made by Dr. Judy Willis, a leading educational neuroscientist, at the 2017 Learning and the Brain Summer Institute Workshop in Santa Barbara, California. As a researcher, classroom teacher, executive function coach, and creativity enthusiast, I have long thought about how we can help our students master the skill sets outlined above in an engaging, meaningful way without compromising the academic integrity of the curriculum. More specifically, how can we assist students in building strong executive function skills they need to possess in order to succeed in future without necessarily adding anything to the already full plates of subject teachers? This article aims at looking at one way in which we may be able to achieve this goal. Let’s begin by defining executive functions.   

Executive Functions and Perceived Behavioral Problems

Executive Functions (EFs), as they are understood in the general sense, are defined as, “the brain-based, cognitive processes that help us to regulate our behavior, make decisions, and set and achieve goals.” (Dawson & Guare, 2009) Some commonly postulated EFs are organization, metacognition, time management, planning, emotional control, task initiation, response inhibition, working memory, flexibility, sustained attention, and goal-oriented persistence (Benedek et al. 2014; Dawson & Guare 2009, 2010). As a middle school teacher, I know how tempting sometimes it is to attribute some executive dysfunctions to negative qualities and behavioral problems: poor organizational skills to laziness and lack of responsibility; impulse control challenges and sustained attention to oppositional defiance and obstinance; and not being engaged with the lesson to apathy. It can be argued, however, that each of these negative manifestations of a student’s behavior at school, or at home, has often one or multiple corresponding EF dysfunction. For example, ‘laziness’ in sitting down to write an introductory paragraph of an English essay can be due to task initiation or working memory issues; forgetfulness and missed homework assignments may be because of organization problems; and calling out or sudden outbursts could be the result of response inhibition dysfunction. In fact, Haydon and Harvey (2015) refer to some of these generally perceived negative qualities as “creative strengths”, convincingly arguing that “if we can identify where creative behaviors are misinterpreted, we can learn how to more effectively take responsibility and employ these characteristics as productive strengths.” (p.50) So how can we address these EF challenges in our students without falling in the habit of mistakenly viewing them as behavioral issues?

Holistic Executive Functions and Creativity

Adapting McCloskey et. al’s (2009) model of EF, I would argue that a more holistic approach to EFs, as opposed to viewing them merely as pre-frontal lobe, cognitive processes, can better enable us to improve them in our students. In other words, executive functions are better seen as the brain processes “beyond prefrontal cortex” (Woerner-Eisner, 2016). In order to function well and regulate the responses to stimulations that it receives, the brain, as a whole, needs to be engaged. In addition to different regions of the brain, holistic view of EF encompasses movement, emotions, music, humor, mindfulness, and gratitude, amongst others, as essential domains of functioning. The incorporation of any of these domains of functioning into the curriculum is essential to develop strong EF skills for our students. The question remains: How can we engage a student’s brain in its entirety and for an extended amount of time - particularly that of a student’s who already struggles with executive functions - when teaching a lesson? One way in which we can ensure having more internally driven and engaged students is through creativity. Creativity is commonly defined as the ability to produce ideas that are novel and useful (Benedek et al. 2014, p. 73). It is one of the characteristics of the self-actualization level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (Kenrick et al. 2010) and it is more recently added to the highest level of Bloom’s taxonomy of educational learning (Pohl, 2000). Creative lessons which enhance creative thinking skills can arguably make students more engaged and intrinsically motivated. The students’ deep level of engagement and high motivation can in turn facilitate their executive function performances. Teaching creatively, no matter the age group, grade level, or subject matter, not only improves the students’ creativity skills but also enhances their executive function networks. Before further discussing creative teaching and learning, let’s briefly explore what happens in the brain when deep, joyful, and creative learning takes place.

The Neuroscience of Holistic Executive Functions

A. Attention Control

We are surrounded by thousands of bits of data at any given second, but our brain can only process so much at a time. The Reticular Activating System (RAS), a filter residing in the lower part of the posterior brain, filters almost all the incoming data and selects the necessary information to which we consciously attend (Willis, 2017). The RAS responds to and gives priority to novelty, which means novel stimuli have a better chance of entering the brain. Here is how this simple but extremely important neurological concept applies to teaching: To immediately engage the students in the lesson you are about to teach, you have to ensure that the information is put forth in a novel way. The novelty of the presentation of the lesson unleashes this filter and allows the information to get into the brain. In other words, because of the novelty through which you present the lesson, the students’ RAS filters select the presented information and let it enter their brains. Movement, humor, change of voice, multi-sensory input, change of the routines, or any other creative and novel way to present the information would do the job. The novel entry of stimuli into the brain has another important advantage. Novel stimuli will release dopamine, an important neurotransmitter in the brain. The release of dopamine not only increases the students’ sense of pleasure, it also enhances alertness, memory, and motivation (Willis, 2009). This surge of focus and motivation, in turn, facilitates optimal arousal. “Optimal arousal enables brains to be alert, receptive, and ready to attend and learn.” (Littman, 2017) Once the students are at this state, ready to attend and learn, we need to keep their interests alive as we continue to teach them the lesson.

B. Positive Emotional State

Once the information comes in through the RAS, it must first pass through your brain’s emotional core, the limbic system, where your amygdala and hippocampus evaluate whether this information is useful. One issue with the students who struggle with executive functions is that once the surge of heightened attention created by the initial release of dopamine is subdued, they have difficulty remaining focused. Therefore, for optimal learning to take place, the delivery of the lesson has to continue to be engaging and creative. One way to re-engage the students is ensuring that the lesson is designed in a way that they find it personally relevant. The greater the personal relevance, the higher the chance of sustaining their attention. If the students find the lesson personally relevant and engaging, the information will continue to travel to their higher, thinking brains. However, if the lesson fails to engage the students on a meaningful and personal level, or it is simply too challenging or not challenging at all, the data is re-routed to their lower, reactive brains. Judi Willis (2017) uses the analogy of Fight, Freeze, Flight to explain how students behave if the information they receive goes to their lower, reactive brains. The students, particularly those already struggling with regulating their emotions, thinking, and behavior, may act out (fight) in the class; zone out (freeze), or make regular visits to the bathroom (flight). In other words, if we fail to ensure a sustained positive emotional state throughout teaching the lesson, we are in essence contributing to our students’ fear, anxiety, or boredom, all of which resulting in blocking the new information from entering into their prefrontal cortex, or the thinking brain. However, if we make sure the lesson is as personally relevant, engaging, and creative as possible, the new information continues to travel to the students’ higher brains where it can be processed, analyzed, made sense of, and reflected upon.

C. Enhanced Cognitive Performance  

Being in a sustained positive emotional state assists the hippocampus, a part of the limbic system responsible for converting short-term memory to long-term memory,  to consolidate the flow of information that needs to travel to the conscious mind. Improved memory helps with retrieving old information and activating background knowledge needed to link with the new information. The combined old and new information is then ready to travel to the conscious, thinking mind, where the brain tries to make sense of the received data. If the lesson continues to be engaging and novel, the brain will conceptualize the information more effectively, helping students make personal meaning out of it.

This might all sound a bit confusing, but, in principle, it is very simple. Let’s recap:  RAS filters external stimuli and often allows the novel ones to enter the brain. The novel stimuli, once entered the brain, release dopamine. Dopamine increases attention, internal motivation, and memory. If the lesson continues to be presented in a novel, engaging, and creative way, dopamine continues to release, and as such, it helps the focused, happy, and motivated student to combine the old and new information more readily. The newly formed concepts will then travel to the higher-brain where all the conscious thinking and self-regulation (i.e. executive functions) take place. The engaging and personally relevant lesson, that has been consistently presented in a creative way, will eventually help the students to conceptualize the newly acquired information at a deeper level. This process, if repeated regularly, will improve higher-order thinking skills which can, in turn, help improve EF skills. After all, once being in control of their cognitive minds, students can better self-regulate. These new EF behaviors, with repeated practice, can become habitual. Through creative teaching we help our students consciously reprogram their unconsciousness.

Teaching Creatively and Learning Creativity

Now that we have closely looked at how the brain functions when deep, creative learning takes place, let’s examine how we can teach creatively to ensure such kind of learning. Just like holistic executive functions, the creative process draws on the whole brain. In fact, Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire (2015) remind us that “creativity does not involve only a single brain region or even a single side of the brain, as the “right brain” myth of creativity would have us believe.” Looking at the research done on the brains of highly creative people (e.g. published poets, jazz musicians, etc.), Kaufman and Gregoire further point out that during creative thinking, especially when the creative work is further refined, “imagination network” and “executive attention network” work in tandem, engaging in an intricate cognitive dance. When students are engaged in learning a lesson creatively, both their creative and executive functions networks work at the same time. Creative teaching, therefore, facilitates the development of the creative process for the learners, and the creative process, at the same time, enhances executive functioning.

Paul E Torrance, a pioneer figure in creativity research and education, proposed a highly effective approach to teaching creative lessons to students of varying age groups. Torrance Incubation Model (TIM) has three interactive, yet sequential stages: heightening anticipation, deepening understanding, and extending learning. Torrance and Sisk (1997) summarized the goals of the Incubation Model of Teaching as follows:

"Before creative thinking can occur, something has to be done to heighten anticipation and expectation and to prepare learners to see clear connections between what they are expected to learn and their future life (the next minute or hour, the next day, the next year, or 25 years from now). After this arousal, it is necessary to help students dig into the problem, acquire more information, encounter the unexpected, and continue deepening expectations. Finally, there must be practice in doing something with the new information, immediately or later" (Torrance and Sisk, 1997, p. 91, cited in Hébert et al. 2002, p. 25).

To supplement his Incubation Model of Teaching, Torrance identified 18 creativity skill sets (see Torrance & Safter, 1999) necessary to integrate into content to help develop more creative lessons. Below is a summary of a history lesson I taught in TIM format using a variety of these creativity skill sets.

A History Lesson Taught in TIM format

When teaching the events that led to the Civil War, I always include the trial of John Brown, the radical American abolitionist who was captured, put on trial, and later hanged on December 2, 1859. I often use his original speech to the court as the main primary source document for my students to analyze. I also have them read textbook excerpts, and show them some relevant documentary video clips to make my lesson more ‘interesting.’ Last year, after a few sessions of studying John Brown and analyzing his speech, I realized I was not totally satisfied with the depth of my students’ learning. So I designed one last lesson on this topic, only this time approaching it in the Torrance Incubation Model (TIM) format. The main creativity skill set I employed during this 50-minute lesson, to reinforce the creative teaching and learning process, was “visualize richly and colorfully” (Torrance & Safter, 1999).

A. Heightened Anticipation

Aiming to get the students’ attention, I set up my classroom environment differently, transforming it into a typical 19th-century American courthouse with designated seats for the judge, victim and his lawyer, defendants and prosecutor, witnesses, and jury. Changing the usual classroom setting by rearranging the furniture ‘heightened’ my students’ anticipation as they walked into the classroom wondering why it was set up so differently. They were able to visualize an actual trial setting. With their curiosity aroused, I simply introduced the task: “Today, we’re going to re-enact John Brown’s trial.”

B. Deepening Understanding

Truth be told, I did not want my students to simply participate in a mock trial of John Brown, repeating exactly what he and others had uttered during his trial. What kind of deeper understanding would that create? What I wanted my students to do, however, was to ‘dig deep’, go beyond the surface, and understand the human emotions. In other words, I wanted them to vicariously participate in the trial of a fellow human being, charged with treason and murder, to discover and learn something new about themselves and their own feelings. I wanted them to visualize the experience through language. Drawing on their already existing knowledge of John Brown and his trial, the students began performing, synthesizing the information, improvising, thinking creatively, and finally reaching a verdict-- one which was different from the actual historical verdict. To them, John Brown was guilty of killing innocent people, but not guilty of exciting the slaves to rebellion or making insurrection. Right or wrong, I respected their verdict.  

C. Extending Learning

The trial simulation was intense, gripping, and highly engaging, with every single student having a role to play. Once it was over, I helped my students discover ways to extend the lesson to the real world. I asked them to simply imagine having to actually play any of the roles they played in the mock trial in real life, in a real trial, at a real court. I had them mentally explore this possibility for a while, to visualize it in their minds. Torrance’s creativity skill to use innovative thinking to imagine the future helped the students imagine and explore things that do not yet exist. Next, I had them share their thoughts explaining how this experience allowed them to realize how tough it is to be in the shoes of any of the people involved in that or any similar case. My students seemed to get one step closer to identifying who they were as individuals. Subsequently, they refined their ability to empathize.

Frequent delivery of content in creative formats, such as TIM, can strengthen the existing neural pathways and build the new ones necessary for students to better self-regulate. On top of that, teachers can consciously embed specific executive function skills they wish their students to improve in the body of their lessons. The table below summarizes this article.

At the beginning of this article, I suggested a holistic approach to executive functioning is a more useful way to address executive dysfunctions (as opposed to viewing them as merely pre-frontal lobe, cognitive processes). Viewing EF in a holistic light allows us to better identify the true sources of what we might otherwise see as behavioral problems in our students. The students who struggle with executive functions are in particular in more urgent need of creative approaches to teaching and learning. Teaching creatively to the whole child enables us to meaningfully engage such students in the creative learning process. A simple awareness of how the brain functions, coupled with familiarity with creative teaching and learning formats such as TIM, and a purposeful integration of EF skills into the curriculum can ensure a deep and joyful learning experience for all the students. It is only then that we can take pride in creating flexible thinkers, successful communicators, effective collaborators, and creative innovators who are ready to assume the sophisticated roles they have to play once they enter colleges or the competitive job market.



M. Benedek, E. Jauk, M. Sommer, M. Arendasy, A.C. Neubauer (2014) Intelligence, Creativity, and Cognitive Control: The Common and Differential Involvement of Executive Functions in Intelligence and Creativity. Intelligence, 46, pp. 72-83

Dawson, P. & Guare, R, (2009). Smart but Scattered: The Revolutionary "Executive Skills": Approach to Helping Kids Reach their Potential. New York: NY: Guilford

Dawson, P. & Guare, R, (2010). Executive skills in Children and Adolescents, 2nd. ed,). New        York, NY: Guilford.

Haydon, K. P. & Harvey, J. (2015). Creativity for Everybody. New York, NY: Sparkitivity, LLC.

Hébert et al. (2002). E. Paul Torrance: His Life, Accomplishments, and Legacy. The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented.

Kenrick, D. T., Neuberg, S. L., Griskevicius, V., Becker, D. V., & Schaller, M. (2010). Goal-Driven Cognition and Functional Behavior The Fundamental-Motives Framework. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 19(1), 63-67.

Kaufman, S. B. & Gregoire, C. (2015). Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind. New York, NY: Penguin Random House

Littman, E. (2017). Never Enough? Why Your Brain Craves Stimulation. Additude: Inside the ADHD Mind.  

Pohl, M. (2000). Learning to Think, Thinking to Learn: Models and Strategies to Develop a Classroom Culture of Thinking. Sydney, Australia: Hawker Brownlow Education.

Woerner-Eisner, L. (2016). Enhancing Executive Function: Going Beyond the Prefrontal Cortex.  Eau Claire, WI: PESI Publishing & Media.

Torrance, E. P.  & Safter, H. T. (1999). Making the Creative Leap Beyond. Buffalo, NY: Creative Education Foundation.

Willis, J. (2009). “How to Teach Students About the Brain”. Educational Leadership, 67(4).

McCloskey, G., Perkins, L.A., & Van Divner, B. (2009). Assessment and  intervention for executive difficulties. New York, NY: Routledge.

Willis, J. (2017). Neuroscience and Executive Skills: Strategies for Executive Functions, Memory and Learning. Learning and the Brain Summer Institute Workshop, July 17 -21, Santa Barbara, CA.


The example of the lesson taught in TIM format which appeared in this article was originally published on the Sparkitivity blog.

comments powered by Disqus