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Executive Functioning and escaping

A good education can provide the foundation for success in life. In addition to the basics, such as numeracy and literacy, there are key skills that help children and adults navigate complex situations and make better decisions. Flexible thinking is a crucial element for future success. It comes from developing executive functioning, which involves working memory, inhibitory control and cognitive flexibility.


One technique we learn early on is to group things. Our ability to recognize patterns develops quickly. As a result, the game, 'One of these things is not like the other,' is fun because it is easy. Over time, we link more and more situations together. Patterned thinking reduces the amount of thought we need to analyze problems and quickly make decisions. The patterns are called mental sets. When we seek a solution, our working memory searches our long-term memory for the dominant mental set that worked the last time we were faced with a similar problem. The disadvantage is that we become reliant on these dominant mental sets and the assumptions associated with our groupings. Our thinking becomes constrained to the point where we cannot think of outcomes and solutions that do not fit previously established patterns.

Flexible thinking helps us to think beyond our patterns and recognize our assumptions. With practice, we can identify our dominant mental set, assess its value, and brainstorm a range of solutions. Executive functioning includes working memory, inhibitory control and cognitive flexibility. When we work to develop our flexible thinking, we use inhibitory control to regulate our dominant mental sets, working memory to explore options and cognitive flexibility to shift to a different strategy. Thus, developing flexible thinking enhances our executive functioning.

Riddles can help students develop flexible thinking as they challenge students' dominant mental set. For each riddle, have your students identify the first solution that comes to mind. Their first solution is their dominant set. Have them brainstorm other options and assess their collection of solutions. Each time they do this, they enhance their executive functioning. The next step is to have students work in groups. After reading a riddle, each student tells the group the first solution that comes to mind. The group discusses the solutions and brainstorms additional ideas. They assess their ideas based on the information provided and pick their solution.

The final step is to try our escape rooms. Our escape rooms will challenge your students' dominant mental sets.  Escaping gives your students' executive functioning a better mental workout than solving riddles. Escape with us and work on improving your students' executive functioning. This takes practice, so keep escaping!

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