Is EF the New IQ?

by Robert Pondiscio
June 6th, 2008

NewsweekEF is the new IQ, Newsweek reports. “Executive function” is the ability to resist distraction and focus. Experiments conducted psychologist Adele Diamond of the University of British Columbia suggest EF may be more important to academic success than traditional measures of intelligence.

Diamond convinced a large low-income urban school district to let her experiment with its preschoolers. Half the classrooms, involving hundreds of children, adopted a new curriculum specifically designed to boost EF, while the other half used a more traditional academic curriculum aimed at basic literacy.

The EF curriculum has many strands, but here are a few just to give a flavor. Instead of keeping the classroom quiet, kids are actually taught and encouraged to talk to themselves, privately but aloud, as a way of helping them exert mental control. In one exercise, for example, the kids have to match their movements to symbols. When the teacher holds up a circle they clap, with a triangle they hop, and so forth. The kids are taught to talk themselves through the mental exercise: “OK, now clap.” “Twirl now.” This has been shown to flex and enhance the brain’s ability to switch gears, to suppress one piece of information and sub in a new one. It takes discipline; it’s the elementary school equivalent of saying “I really need stop thinking about next week’s vacation and focus on this report.”

Preschoolers with sharper executive capability reportedly outperform their more traditional peers in basic skills, especially mathematics, when they hit kindergarten. “In other words, as counterintuitive as it seems, early exposure to dramatic play and cognitive games better prepares kids for mastery of traditional academics,” Newsweek reports.

I wonder what Dan Willingham will have to say about this.

Update: Willingham posts in the comments for this thread.

1 Comment »

  1. First off, confession: I haven’t read the original report, just the press coverage, so I don’t know what was actually done. From the press coverage, it’s difficult to tell whether the manipulations were really practice with executive function (which, if open to practice effects, would surprise everyone) or metacognition (which are known to be open to practice effects, have been extensively studied in the last 25 years and yield modest effects that don’t seem cumulative). The larger point–that EF might be what IQ is–is an idea that dates to about 1990.

    Comment by Dan Willingham — June 6, 2008 @ 9:25 am

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