Using CodeSpace to Build Executive Functioning Skills: 3 Easy Ways to Support Gifted Learners

Earlier this month, Firia Labs presented at the 2020 Alabama Association of Gifted Children Virtual Conference. I don’t know about you, but whenever I go to a conference, I can’t just present and leave. I need to visit some of the other sessions. What can I say? I love to learn.

Now that I’ve confessed, let me tell you about one of the sessions I attended - Minimizing Connectile Dysfunction: Making strong, long-lasting neuroconnections. The presenter, Sherri  Spears, gave several useful tips on helping students build executive functioning skills. 

Executive functioning is the term used to describe an individual's capacity to regulate tasks. Or more specifically, to be able to self-regulate when working on a task. In fact, there are several types of self-regulation that fall under the umbrella of executive functioning. 

Are you thinking about time management? That’s the first thing I thought of too! But there is so much more. Another component is metacognition, or our ability to “think about our thinking.” Planning and being able to lay out the steps involved in a task is another one. 

While listening to the recommendations for how to help gifted children build and support them in building their executive functioning skills, I found myself thinking about the habitual ways I see computer science curriculum supporting gifted education.

As a former middle and high school teacher, I’m guilty of believing that computer programming was great for gifted kids because it was a challenge with the potential to push them to the edge of their own capacity. Is it just me, or are there a lot of confessions in this blog post? Anyhoo! The fact of the matter is, my belief isn’t true. When learning computer science, there's an opportunity for so much more to happen with a gifted child beyond giving them problems that are “hard enough.” With some minor tweaks to how the lesson is delivered, you can give a student lots of opportunities to practice building executive functioning skills while working in CodeSpace. 

Tweak #1: Encourage mindful planning by requiring flowcharts first.

The table of flowchart symbols is one of the many supplemental resources we provide for teachers to use with CodeSpace lessons. In these convenient handouts, we include basic symbols along with the names and associated functions. The act of having students create flowcharts provides them with an opportunity to do more than plan. Students can think about their goals and how they can go about achieving them. 

Asking a child to draw out their plan makes their thinking external - which was another recommendation I heard during this session. The act of externalizing one’s thinking means being able to see it. And for some learners, they have to be able to see their thinking before they can act on it. In other words, using flowcharts is a double win. But wait! There’s more! Using a flowchart to help students externalize their thinking set’s you up perfectly for the second tweak.

Tweak #2: Use externalized thinking to support metacognitive tasks.

Once a student creates a flowchart, they have externalized their thinking. Now they (possibly with the help of a peer) have an opportunity to examine their plan and evaluate it. Asking students to focus in this way puts them in the space of building metacognitive ability. They can think about their thinking. 

I love this tweak because it doesn’t require a lot of lesson planning - only a commitment to verbally ask students to dig a little deeper. I also love this tweak because it sets the stage for the third tweak.

Tweak #3: Build time management skills using the powers of prediction and reflection.

Excuse me, your flowchart called and said it needed a break. Just kidding! We’re in the home stretch. By now you’ve probably figured out that I like flowcharts - a lot. But it’s with good reason. Flowcharts have the capacity to be the ultimate tool for reflection when learning to program. 

By asking a student to predict how long it will take them to code each symbol in their flowchart, they can estimate their time to finish the entire task. If they need guidance, offer questions like, “I see you have a process there, how long do you think it will take you to write the code for that?”

The most challenging part of this tweak will be getting the students to remember to log their actual time for each part of the flow chart. In fact, this tweak might work better when students are doing pair programming or when working directly with an individual student. Who knew a flowchart had so much to offer?

So there you have it! Three ways you can use CodeSpace to help gifted children build executive functioning skills. If you decide to try these tweaks in your classroom, let me know how it goes. Share your classroom adventures by emailing info@firialabs.com.