Learning environment Teaching

Can we help our students’ working memories thrive?

Peter Doolittle’s TED Talk entitled, How your working memory makes sense of the world, has some important takeaways for classroom teachers.  Here are some of the ideas I learned from his work on working memory.

  • Working memory has four components
    • Store some immediate experiences
    • Store some knowledge
    • Retrieves information from long-term memory
    • Mixes and processes things from memory in light of our current situation
    • Working memory capacity is our ability to leverage the above components to accomplish our current goals.  People with good working memory capacity are often good:
      • Storytellers
      • Writers
      • Problem-solvers with strong reasoning skills
      • Working memory is what allows us to process things as we move forward in our daily work.
        • It allows us to make sense of the world.
        • It allows us to communicate with others.
        • It allows us to process what we learn, evaluate the things we learn, and ask questions about our learning.

I found it interesting to think about how do we as teachers help our students exercise their working memory in strategic ways.  Are we intentional in designing our lessons or using instructional strategies in such a way that our students’ working memory is challenged?  I would propose that one of the goals of a classroom teacher should be to build the working memory capacity of his or her students.

As Doolittle points out, working memory is “awesome,” but he suggests that is has limitations.  It is restricted in its capacity, duration and focus.  We can remember only a few things (four to seven), for short durations (20 seconds), and often forget them from one moment to the next.  As I listened to his talk, it was clear to me that all of these restrictions of working memory are at play every day for me.  Doolittle gives some obvious examples that most human beings experience.  “Have you ever walked from one room into another (you were going to get something) and then forgot why you’re there?”

What is it like for our students who have to navigate five or more courses requiring things from their working memory?  Do they understand how to maximize the use of their working memory?  What are we as their teachers doing to promote strengthening their working memory?  Do we understand the pressure put on working memory when we expect them to learn mountains of content and be assessed on what they learn constantly?  As I think about these questions, I am left wondering if we do enough to support our students through the challenging experience of “learning.”  I mean support in the broadest sense of the word.  However, I also believe it is about us (teachers) learning techniques to help students build a strong working memory.   We need strategies at our disposal to help students.

Doolittle gives some examples of what we can do to build working memory capacity.

  • Practice: we need to process our experiences immediately and repeatedly.
  • Application: we need to apply what we learn in ways that help move working memory into long-term memory.  Process what is going on in our world so that we can use it later.
  • Variety: we need to interact with our experiences in diverse ways; (1) write about them, (2) communicate them to others, and (3) intentionally review and reflect on them.
  • Organization: we need to organize things we experience into sets, categories, topics, or themes.
  • Meaning: we need to make the things we learn and experience have meaning.  The more meaning ideas have for students the more learning takes place.
  • Visual processing:  we need to think “elaboratively and illustratively” about our experiences.
    • Help students make connections.
    • Use mapping strategies to visualize connections
    • Use imagery
    • Use visual thinking strategies (VTS)
    • Support: as learners we all need support.

Doolittle points out that we all start as novice learners.  We only get better at using our working memory to our advantage if we engage all seven strategies listed above.   He ends his talk with the statement: “What we process we learn.”

Do we teach our students how to process what they experience?  Do we use instructional strategies that align to the seven principles listed above?  Finally, do we intentionally help our students develop their working memory so that they can navigate the challenging work of school?


Visual Thinking Strategies, Philip Yenawine, Harvard Education Press, 2013

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