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Vol.10 #7 Keeping Working Memory in Mind: Learning and Teaching

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.