Little Evidence That Executive Function Interventions Boost Student Achievement: So why should computing?
Here’s how I interpret the results described below. Yes, having higher executive function (e.g., being able to postpone the gratification of eating a marshmallow) is correlated with greater achievement. Yes, we have had some success teaching some of these executive functions. But teaching these executive functions has not had any causal impact on achievement. The original correlations between executive function and achievement might have been because of other factors, like the kids who had higher executive function also had higher IQ or came from richer families.
This is relevant for us because the myth that “Computer science teaches you how to think” or “Computer science teaches problem-solving skills” is pervasive in our community. (See a screenshot of my Google search below, and consider this blog post of a few weeks ago.) But there is no support for that belief. If this study finds no evidence that explicitly teaching thinking skills leads to improved transferable achievement, then why should teaching computer science indirectly lead to improved thinking skills and transferable achievement to other fields?
Why do CS teachers insist that we teach for a given outcome (“thinking skills” or “problem-solving skills”) when we have no evidence that we’re achieving that outcome?
The meta-analysis, by researchers Robin Jacob of the University of Michigan and Julia Parkinson of the American Institutes for Research, analyzed 67 studies published over the past 25 years on the link between executive function and achievement. The authors critically assessed whether improvements in executive function skills—the skills related to thoughtful planning, use of memory and attention, and ability to control impulses and resist distractions—lead to increases in reading and math achievement , as measured by standardized test scores, among school-age children from preschool through high school. More than half of the studies identified by the authors were published after 2010, reflecting the rapid increase in interest in the topic in recent years.
While the authors found that previous research indicated a strong correlation between executive function and achievement, they found “surprisingly little evidence” that the two are causally related.
“There’s a lot of evidence that executive function and achievement are highly correlated with one another, but there is not yet a resounding body of evidence that indicates that if you changed executive functioning skills by intervening in schools, that it would then lead to an improvement in achievement in children,” said Jacob. “Although investing in executive function interventions has strong intuitive appeal, we should be wary of investing in these often expensive programs before we have a strong research base behind them.”