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Higher-Order Executive Functions are the complex thinking processes that we use to interpret and understand how things work in the world around us, make predictions, solve problems and achieve our goals. These are complex multi-faceted skills that enable us to manage and manipulate information and the behaviors that we engage in, as individuals and in groups.

Higher-Order Executive Functions build on a more basic set of cognitive skills called executive functions, which we generally refer to as core executive functions, to help distinguish them from higher-order processes. Core executive functions refer to three mental processes:  working memory, inhibitory control, and cognitive flexibility.

Higher-Order Executive Functions have a lot in common with the kinds of thinking processes that people often have in mind when they talk about critical thinking or 21st Century Skills.  Often 21st Century Skills are a combination of content (for example, entrepreneurship or financial literacy) along with skills that are less domain-specific (such as communication or collaboration). And critical thinking tends to exclude decision processes and the concept of strategy.

While there is no consensus list of Higher-Order Executive Functions, we believe that the following skills contribute significantly to effectiveness in understanding the world around us, making predictions, solving problems and achieving our goals

Logic and Reasoning

Logic as a skill refers to the ability to make a valid deduction or inference from available information. It is closely aligned with the concept of cause and effect.  Logic can be applied to different types of information giving rise to various types of complex reasoning skills. The ability to think logically can be applied to visual-spatial information, as when we decide whether a parking space is adequate for us to park our car or whether it is safe to cross the railroad tracks before the train arrives. It can be applied to verbal information, as when we correctly interpret figurative language (a friend’s “stormy countenance”, the “icing on the cake,” or “getting a foot in the door”), or use an analogy (e.g., “up a creek without a paddle”).  And it can also be applied to nonverbal information, where it is often referred to as abstract reasoning.  Being able to see patterns and predict what will come next, or identify an element that doesn’t belong with others (or that does belong). Abstract reasoning is inherent in the ability to form concepts and categories, recognize parts of a whole, see the big picture and the details. All of these applications of logic and reasoning skills can also be characterized based on how efficiently we can perform them, something we refer to as processing speed or decision speed.

Higher-Order Thinking

When we are in a position where we need to use multiple logic and reasoning skills, in combination with other cognitive skills, and integrate them, we typically need one or more of the skills referred to as higher-order thinking.

While these higher-order thinking skills can be conceptualized in a variety of ways, there are three that characterize those that apply most often in learning situations:  planning, problem-solving and strategic thinking.  Planning involves the ability to use forethought to come up with a plan that will effectively help us achieve what we intend to achieve.  Problem-solving involves defining a problem, evaluating alternative approaches and carrying out the steps to solve the problem.  Strategic thinking is similar to problem-solving – in fact, some believe it is, essentially, problem-solving – but the term “strategic thinking” tends connotes specific consideration of external and internal factors and how they interact and their implications in how effective the solution would be, as well as explicit consideration of alternatives and selection of a best alternative to reach defined goals.

Improving Higher-Order Executive Functions

Strong Higher-Order Executive Functions depend on having well-functioning underlying cognitive processes, including foundational cognitive skills and core executive functions. So, a first step in strengthening higher-order thinking processes is often to strengthen underlying processes through cognitive training.  For example, it is difficult to think strategically without well-developed cognitive flexibility, which enable us to come up with alternative solutions. When underlying skills are strong, then improvement in higher-order thinking can come from domain-specific knowledge and understanding.  For example, strategic thinking in a business context requires knowledge and understanding of business-related concepts and information, to define the problem and its causes and to come up with relevant and feasible solutions.

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