Obsessed with Working Memory, Part II

Obsessed with Working Memory, Part II
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In the first post of the series, we looked at the definition of working memory. Simply put, it allows brains to SHREK.

That is:

Select, Hold, REorganize, Kombine

This post considers three core ideas that we need to remember about WM.

1: Working Memory is CRUCIAL to Learning

“No academic information gets into long-term memory except through working memory.”

Simply put, students have to use WM to learn almost anything.

When students try to balance chemistry equations, they use WM.

When they sound out new words: WM.

When they compare Inca and Maya religions: WM.

When they transpose a song into a new key: yup, WM.

It is, in fact, hard to think of much that students do with low WM demands. For instance, when they sing “Happy Birthday,” that’s not much of a working memory task. After all, “Happy Birthday” is in almost everyone’s long-term memory.

Of course, if you’ve forgotten the name of the person whose birthday it is, you might feel your WM scramble when you sing: “Happy Birthday dear Hmm-Hmm, Happy Birthday to you.”

2: Working Memory is LIMITED

In the first post in this series, I asked you to alphabetize five days of the week. You could probably do that quite easily.

If, however, I asked you to alphabetize 10 months of the year, you would — almost certainly — crash before you got there. (Go ahead, try it. See what I mean?)

We have enough WM for five, but not enough for ten.

People experience WM overload frequently. For instance:

driving to an unfamiliar location requires lots of WM.

Exploring a new program on your computer.

Following a multi-step recipe.

Solving the problem in this video.

Let’s pause for a moment and put #1 and #2 together. Working memory is both CRUCIAL and LIMITED. That’s a very bad combination. (If you have a wry sense of humor, you might say it sounds like your school’s budget.)

So, let’s ask a vital question: how can we increase this vital cognitive resource?

3a: Good News about INCREASING Working Memory

We don’t have to do anything special. Working memory gets bigger as students get older.

In this way, WM is a bit like height. As long as we’re treating students (and their bodies) well, they get taller. As long as we’re treating students (and their brains) well, working memory gets bigger.

The details here get technical — after all, we have several different ways we can measure WM. But, you can be confident that your 4th graders have more WM than they did when they were in 2nd grade. And, the 6th graders have more WM still.

This growth levels off in our early 20s. Alas, WM probably begins to decline (very slowly) soon after. But, don’t worry. All the extra information you have in your long-term memory makes up for the very modest decrements in your WM.

3B: Bad News about INCREASING Working Memory

We can’t.

Better said: we can’t artificially increase WM, beyond the natural increase that comes with growth and schooling.

Better said: we can’t YET do that.

LOTS of thoughtful people are working very hard on this problem, and have had some intriguing wins.

But, as of this post, we don’t have broad data suggesting that we can train up students’ WM with specially designed computer games, or exercises, or special diet, or whatever.

To be clear: this is a controversial field, and very accomplished people have devoted years of work to it. I hope — at some point — that this breakthrough does happen.

1+2+3a+3b = ?

We know

#1: that working memory is CRUCIAL in classrooms.

#2: that it’s LIMITED.

#3a & #3b: that we CAN’T artificially make it bigger.

Put those three conclusions together, and you arrive at this conclusion:

Teachers have to work effectively WITHIN THE WM CAPACITY THAT OUR STUDENTS HAVE.

In fact, we should be EXPERTS at working effectively within their WM capacity.

Every time we go beyond their limited capacity, they experience WM overload.

And, when students experience WM overload, they stop learning. This is why I’m OBSESSED with WM.

How do we do that? How can we work effectively WITHIN their working memory capacity?

The next several posts will cover this essential topic.

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