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Working with Working Memory

by Andrew Watson, President of Translate the Brain and Contributor to St. Mark’s Professional Development Through Sponsorship by The Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning

Here’s a quick exercise: think of a phone number you know well and say all ten digits out loud. (Go ahead, say ‘em. No one’s looking.) Now, say those ten digits in the reverse order. (Yes, you can do it.) Okay, say them in the reverse order: AND, add 1 to the first digit, 2 to the second, 3 to the third, and so forth…

Don’t feed bad that you couldn’t get all ten digits; Rain Man could, but practically no one else can. When you tried to do that mental work, you were using your working memory: a specialized cognitive capacity that simultaneously stores, reorganizes, and manipulates information. You were storing all ten digits, and then reorganizing (reversing) and manipulating (adding to) them.

Now, you want the good news or the bad news?

The good news: working memory supports all academic learning. It connects information that you already know with new information coming into your brain—that’s why the storing, reorganizing, and manipulating are so important. When you learn Boyle’s law or the definition of “sedulous” or the fallacy post hoc ergo propter hoc, working memory links that new information up with the knowledge you already have. Without it, no classroom learning happens.

The bad news: well, you already discovered the bad news when you tried to add digits to your backward phone number. You couldn’t do it because working memory capacity is important and powerful, but very small. We all need working memory to learn, but we don’t have much of it. That’s really bad news.

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When I started teaching, I didn’t know much of anything about brains. Today, that gap seems very strange to me.

After all, a racecar driver has to know a lot about engines. And, just as a racecar’s engine sets limits on and creates possibilities for racing, so too our brains set limits on and create possibilities for learning. As teachers and students, we should know both the limits and the possibilities.

Starting in the fall of 2012, I’ve met regularly with St. Mark’s School faculty to discuss brain research and its implications for teaching. For example: we’ve looked at several strategies for managing working memory. Teachers can reorganize lesson plans to distribute working memory demands more evenly; simply writing instructions down can reduce WM load. Another strategy, called “chunking,” makes learning easier by combining several small pieces of information into one larger “chunk”—a “chunk” that can smuggle those many pieces through WM. Writing and keyboarding both take up working memory space, and so teachers can reduce WM load by helping students manage the notes they take during class. Although simple, these strategies and others combine to make learning easier and teaching more effective.

Learning requires working memory, but it requires much more. Mental processes including attention, long-term memory, motivation, and emotion must all work together for learning to happen. I’ve been discussing all these topics with teachers at St. Mark’s; just this morning, I met with a small group to investigate the relationship between background knowledge and new learning.

I also spoke to the students at St. Mark’s at the beginning of the year to explain the study strategies that—quite literally—allow us to study less and learn more. We’ve always known that repetition creates long-term memory, but now we know why: it changes neurons in exactly the right ways. We also know what kinds of repetition work best: spreading practice problems out over several days, doing the right number of practice problems (but not more), and creating self-tests instead of merely rereading and reviewing. We also know why aerobic exercise boosts memory and why sleep doesn’t come after homework: sleep IS homework. If students don’t do their sleep homework, they simply can’t learn as well.

Learning requires extraordinarily complex changes in the brain and will—let’s be honest—never be easy. But now that neurology and psychology can tell us so much more about how brains work, we can take on its challenges with greater confidence and greater success.

And in the long run, that’s more important than being able to say phone numbers in reverse…

After 16 years of classroom teaching in New England boarding schools, Andrew Watson began studying neurology and psychology, and their implications for high school teaching. He is now President of Translate the Brain, a consulting firm that works with teachers, students, schools, and families to make learning easier and teaching more effective.

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