Keeping Working Memory in Mind: Learning and Teaching
Barbara Allen-Lyall, PhD
Manhattanville College, Purchase, New York
Working memory and its role in learning is of interest to researchers worldwide. As a concept, it claims much attention in the research literature due to connections with competencies that allow people to live full and interesting lives. Information about the special cognitive process we term working memory finds its way into news reports, magazine articles and online discussions related to learning in childhood, as well as quality of life issues across the lifespan. Unfortunately, media presentation sometimes promotes working memory as little more than short-term storage when a more appropriate analogy would be working memory as a dominant “hand” that holds sensory parcels while it also opens the door for other learning tasks (Baddeley, Eysenck & Anderson, 2015). Working memory is a fleeting-storage and information manipulation system that interacts with other memory systems in unique ways (Baddeley et al., 2015). For educators, it is important to know that working memory is also an entryway to deeper learning worlds for children.
It is believed that the supports needed for working memory are largely in place by age six (Gathercole, Pickering, Ambridge, & Wearing, 2004). During early life, the frontal lobe’s “hardware” patiently awaits activation by the chemically charged “software” that physical development provides. Young children are not able to process certain kinds of information with the same competence that older children and young adults can. The executive function required to pay attention, control actions, and solve problems gradually emerges and gains momentum during childhood and adolescence, and continues into young adulthood (Luciana, Conklin, Hooper & Yarger, 2005). Executive function plays a role in coordinating working memory processes critical to learning (Baddeley, 1996). But does this mean that younger children do not capably learn? Certainly they do! Children are virtual learning sponges, especially in the presence of rich sensory stimuli. However, a mediating factor in children’s learning is the parallel rise of both working memory and executive functions that coordinate attention during multiple learning tasks (Gathercole et al., 2004). This means that the executive function tasks of demonstrated focus, attention maintenance, and internal behavior controls are significant in the development of working memory competence and in turn the interactive relationship that working memory enjoys with long-term memory storage and retrieval (Palladino, 2006; Siegel, 1999).
Understanding working memory is important given that learning difficulties involving aspects of working memory can arise for children early in life. Processing or sensory receiving issues and executive function challenges sometimes compromise the sensitive working memory system. Teachers benefit from understanding working memory and the ways in which it holds the key to learning. Specifically, this understanding helps to guide decisions teachers make when working with children in classrooms.
Working Memory in the Brain
In order to understand working memory and its importance in learning, it helps to understand where this important function is organized in the brain. Like other learning and behavior processes, it is not housed in an exclusive area that serves no other purpose. Working memory is largely located in the frontal lobes of the right and left brain hemispheres just behind the forehead, an area also responsible for directing executive brain functions–attention, problem-solving, behavior controls, and judgment (Savage, Cornish, Manly, & Hollis, 2006). The juxtaposition of executive function and working memory is not inconsequential. The role of working memory seems to enjoy a significant correspondence with higher order thinking, verbal tasks, mathematical understanding and fluid intelligence (Alloway, Gathercole, & Pickering, 2006; Gathercole et al., 2004).
How Does Working Memory Function?
Current studies further expand collective understanding of the elemental systems underlying working memory (Siffredi et al., 2017; Swanson, 2017). Two of the three systems that facilitate retention and processing are the visuospatial sketchpad and the phonological loop. These cognitive processes are able to function independently of one another (Baddeley et al., 2015) and allow for fleeting retention of sensory input or retrieval of images and sound/verbal information from other areas of the brain. This can occur many times over during the processing of any particular sensory stimulus. For example, if a young child is looking for a stuffed animal inside a large carry bag, most likely she does not provide for herself repetitive verbal cues (brown bunny, brown bunny) to assist her. However, she may have experienced a fleeting mental image of her brown bunny when someone mentioned it, and this was enough to induce a search for the object after lightning-quick processing within her working memory’s visuospatial sketchpad. Conversely, if someone mentions her stuffed bunny while she is somewhat removed from the item, the child may say aloud bunny as she runs to investigate its whereabouts. Such verbalization can be an indicator of tapping into the phonological loop for assistance in remembering while searching for a cherished item. Both verbal and visual rehearsal aids, whether internal or external (as illustrated in the examples above), are useful and remain the domain of working memory.
Examples of Working Memory Use in Schooling
In the important process of learning, prior sensory input retrieved from long-term memory helps new learning along. In other words, whatever children are able to recall from experience impacts newly presented ideas. However, prior experiences occasionally need some degree of coaxing to come out of hiding. This is when the phonological loop and the visuospatial sketchpad can be valuable tools for reconnecting with prior learning. In school, it might happen like this – Teacher uses a verbal prompt: Remember when we sent our original stories off to the educational publishing house competition? In that moment, a student may experience a visual “flash” of his book’s hand-illustrated cover or some other mental image connected to the process, such as fitting hard-copy submissions into a large mailing envelope or observing the teacher as she clicked “send” for electronic delivery. He might then instantaneously retrieve from long-term memory many earlier experiences that serve to assist in the process of imagining. As these visual flashes occur, verbalizing may be less than fluid with visuospatial elements of working memory taking precedence over phonological (verbal) processes. The child may begin to say something relevant to the mental visualization with reduced ability to complete a verbalized thought: “I remember...we...” While all working memory systems may activate as they naturally interface with prior intact memory, one system, visual or phonological, may play a larger role at any point depending upon the type of stimulus presented. This reduced ability to verbalize about the event does not mean, however, that the child does not recall the event in some fashion.
Contrarily, a verbal prompt may be less efficient in producing event recall for some children. With this in mind, perhaps the teacher holds up a few examples of student illustrated books with no accompanying verbal prompt. The visual sensory input triggers a student’s recall of creating storybooks, with assistance of the working memory’s visuospatial sketchpad, and may ultimately produce comments such as Oh, our books! Where is mine? For the teacher, varying prompts is essential when the goal is to induce recall of prior learning; this can be especially important for children who present with differing working memory abilities due to the fact that for some children the phonological or visuospatial processes may not develop evenly (Swanson, 2017).
A Third Element of Working Memory
Researchers who study learning and remembering have found that thinking about working memory as uniquely visual or phonological presented challenges for understanding recall as a more collaborative process in learning. For example, it was thought that learning and remembering might present a rather large workload for just the phonological loop or the visuospatial sketchpad. This consideration led to identification of a connected component that facilitates other elements of working memory, one that binds together different sensory items. Researcher Baddeley (2000) identified this third system called the episodic buffer, which works in conjunction with the already established visuospatial and phonological working memory systems. It seems that the episodic buffer binds together manipulations of working memory and enjoys a complex relationship with both the central executive and the emotional center of the brain (Henry, 2010). In other words, when a child detects something new, established memories instantly associate with relevant emotional connections and are then combined with new visuospatial or phonological ideas within the episodic buffer.
Expanding upon earlier examples, if a child holding her beloved brown bunny is presented with a new blue bunny, the episodic buffer will coordinate already integrated brown bunny memories and attached emotions with the visuospatial stimuli of a new blue bunny. If some sort of verbalization accompanies the presentation of the blue bunny–look at this tiny blue bunny–the child’s visuospatial and phonological capabilities will both interact with the episodic buffer to make sense of the new event. For the older child in school, the teacher’s presentation of a newly published book actually created by a school-age child would trigger established memories of creating his own illustrated story, including how he felt about the process and the outcome. These memories would then combine with whatever the episodic buffer bound together in his visual and phonological systems as they “sensed” the newly available book.
Teaching Strategies to Activate Working memory
Although individual competencies vary widely from person to person, everyone utilizes working memory to organize new sensory input and assist in the retrieval of prior learning from long-term memory. Children depend upon working memory’s specialized capabilities for countless mental processes every single day. Nevertheless, developmental constraints do govern an individual’s ability to capably use these systems. This means that using teaching strategies to promote children’s learning and remembering is necessary both at home and in school, so that learning expectations are realistic every day. For example, varying directives by utilizing both verbal and non-verbal prompts during instruction is important. Using one strategy at a time may be more effective than joining the two together as is often the case in teaching.
Since we can not easily sense every individual student’s unique differences, thoughtful inclusion of explicitly varied instructional strategies is essential in meeting learning needs. When a particular strategy is used, careful attention to student responses in the moment can help teachers to make decisions about what may be helping students to take in information or recall what was previously internalized. This is how as teachers we can come to better understand the individual differences of students, through careful implementation and observation of the response to strategies. For children perhaps seven years and older, it can be helpful to request feedback on what actually works best for them. For this author, 8- and 9-year-olds provided the following feedback when questioned about the efficacy of either non-verbal or verbal presentations of information: I like looking first and then thinking; I talk when I think and sometimes change my mind [about what I think]; Hearing first helps me imagine my own ideas.
Given that children encounter a vast miscellany of sensory input every day, finding a good balance of both stretching and supporting their working memory is an important goal. Achieving effective balance is not a simple task, however, as it requires understanding working memory and how learners interact with complex sensory input. As teachers grow more aware of processing responses exhibited by students, they are able to develop an especially adaptive, individual perspective with surprising potential for helping each of their students learn.
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Barbara Allen-Lyall, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at Manhattanville College located in Purchase, New York. Dr. Allen-Lyall teaches courses in elementary mathematics methods; teacher research; and classroom management, curriculum development and assessment. She speaks at national conferences and publishes on topics related to mathematics education research and cognition. She also presents on topics related to the brain and learning as part of the Gural Mind Matters series in New York City. Dr. Allen-Lyall can be reached at Barbara.AllenLyall@mville.edu.