Executive Function Learning Session

An Intentional Learning session for the Gates Foundation to understand and reveal new keys to education
"Intentional Futures demonstrated a creative approach and a deep understanding of ways we can effectively leverage scientific insights to support students' opportunities for learning." –C. Cybele Raver, Deputy Provost, NYU

The challenge

In their ongoing pursuit to understand the drivers behind student success, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, in conjunction with Global Good (a collaboration with Intellectual Ventures), set out to explore the topic of executive function. Executive function (EF) is the set of cognitive skills we use to control our thoughts, actions, and emotions in order to achieve a particular goal. Our client wanted to answer a variety of questions: What is the relationship between EF and student outcomes? What kind of impact do EF interventions produce? What are the most interesting and effective products that measure and improve EF?

The foundation asked Intentional Futures to drive this investigation. Our task was to synthesize the research, find the most illuminating products in the space, and design a half-day learning experience for senior leadership from the Gates Foundation, Global Good, and Intellectual Ventures. We combined interactive cognitive assessments, live product demonstrations, and presentations by experts to reveal the most pressing insights regarding EF and its surprisingly powerful relationship to student success.

Literature review

We immersed ourselves in the literature on executive function and conducted interviews with neuroscientists, cognitive psychologists, seminal researchers, and practitioners. The report we created synthesized our understanding of the space and prepared participants for the live session.

During the session, we wanted the participants to experience the nuances of EF first-hand. To do that, we developed four different digital cognitive assessments, created directly from research examples. Experiences ranged from quickly sorting items according to ever-changing rules, to completing a set of real-world tasks in a virtual mall. Each assessment highlighted a different aspect of EF, giving participants personal experience with the content.

Sorting images by just two different rules pushed participants’ cognitive flexibility.
Participants had to exercise their inhibitory control to track the center arrow.
This working memory test, while simple, was perhaps the most challenging.

What we made

Following the assessments, we coordinated presentations from a range of experts. Some had been leading research in the field for decades, others were pioneering applied work in schools, or were at the forefront of product development. Throughout the session, we demonstrated an array of assessment and intervention products—from landmark curricula integrating new mobile interventions to gaming technology using brain activity to drive gameplay.

A snapshot of the hundreds of products we reviewed during research.


Over the course of the afternoon, some of the country’s most notable philanthropic leaders gained new insights about the role executive function plays in the lives of students and the potential for leveraging EF as a mechanism for impacting outcomes. They grappled with what we know and what we still have yet to learn about EF, in the company of those leading the field, and they saw a snapshot of the products leading the marketplace. While our collective understanding of executive function is still relatively nascent, we believe that developing EF skills holds great promise for student success.

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