Constructive Dismissal


I’m preparing a talk for some instructors at St. Lawrence College in Kingston. My goal is raise awareness about the effect of executive functions on success in college, and to suggest that the instructors consider using whole-class EF coaching in their feedback and assessment systems. I’ve never spoken to college instructors before. I hope they’re not in the middle of a horrible contract dispute or a broken coffee machine. I hope they get up on the right side of the bed and I hope they come with an open mind.

As I develop my presentation, I find myself focusing on the obstacles faced by bright kids with poor executive functions. Maybe you’ll be interested in the ideas I’m planning to share.

Consider this, if you are so inclined. Perhaps the students who are pulling ‘A’s in college classes are not the students in the college classes with the most creative and innovative solutions to problems that have been presented. Necessarily. They might be. But those kids who make the high marks *might* just the kids who can execute best. They may be creating great things, but they may also just be feeding their teachers ideas that are 100% safe, clear, tidy, and good enough.

Fact is, those ‘A’ students might be the kids who managed to start a month ago, secure good peer support, find a killer study group, arrange for their uncle (who is an engineer) to look it over, and get their sister to grammar check it five times. They might just be the ones who manage to exercise, eat, and sleep, and just generally keep their shit together. And they win. Fair enough, and jolly good for them, but it might be interesting to consider that the skills we are valuing with marks are much more related to execution than design, engineering, marketing, or whatever else we are intending to teach. The people we are promoting and encouraging with marks are the executors.

The guys that are not valued, promoted, and encouraged are the kids with a few unusually weak executive functions. The rubric does not control for executive functions so their marks stink. Sometimes they are utterly immobilized by anxiety or depression. Or they submit incomplete, unpolished work that has flashes of greatness – a 6 pager when you asked for a 12. They are the ones who get terrible grades because they avoid and avoid and avoid and then finally have a breakdown and start two nights before and don’t sleep for 48 hours trying to get things done. They do not, generally, sleep well, wake up on time, eat sensibly, or get any exercise. Their executive functions are a straight up mess.

This guy and gal fill college classrooms, and my advocacy for them is passionate. I’m passionate because I know that every single kid in our classrooms has something important to offer. I’ve worked with kids with weak EFs and I know that more often that you might suspect, they have dynamic and original minds and big contributions to make. These kids with poor executive functions tend to lose. It is worth noticing that although so much of the marked performance relies on execution, it is rarely taught directly.

Darn it, how can we get these kids up to speed? This question is turning into my life’s work because the more I get to know kids and adults with weak EFs the more I notice a disturbing pattern. People with weak EFs are a group who think divergently, imaginatively, and deeply AND they rarely get their act together quickly and efficiently enough to join the conversation. They are sort of ‘constructively dismissed’ by the way we run our classrooms – hopelessly unprepared to participate and resigned to the sidelines. All those unusual thinkers are sidelined. That’s a big deal. It’s a problem.

I wonder what is lost in the wholesale ‘leaving behind’ of poor executors? Do smart but scattered people generate a brand of solution that is underrepresented in the way we do business on earth? Do our complex and unruly problems require complex and unruly problem-solvers? Wouldn’t it be interesting to pull these guys back into the conversation and see what they could do with an early start, and a study group, and strategies for being flexible, and well-fed, exercised, and slept? Jeepers. Gosh darn it. It would.

The book I’m writing, and the finale of most of my talks is related to my idea for a flipped feedback and assessment system that focuses on whole-class EF-based coaching. I’m encouraging educators to slow down and reflect on goals with students before the work begins, anticipate challenges in execution, make tangible plans for working around those obstacles, and then hold their students accountable (with marks) for following their plans. In practice, at St. Lawrence College, it might sound something like this…

Hi guys. Sorry I’m late but there was a contract protest and the coffee machine is broken. No matter… let’s get started. Here is the target – work with a group to design this widget. What do you know about yourself? What do you know about your executive functions? So, what’s going to stop you from hitting this target? What are you going to do to prevent that, exactly? Great. I’m writing that down. You write it down. Let’s document your plan. You will be marked on your use of that strategy. Now get to work, you bunch of loveable rascals.

Best I can figure, at a time like this, we need all hands on deck. Let’s figure out how to do that.


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