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

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

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

Tags: creative teaching, executive control, executive functions, iman rasti, torrance incubation model

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