Working Memory 101 By Jared Cooney Horvath

The term “Working Memory” is often misunderstood. How would you describe Working Memory?

What’s funny is that from a research perspective, the term Working Memory keeps changing all the time as well. The easiest way to explain it is that working memory is all the information that's available for you to consciously process at any given moment.

Another way to put it is that Working Memory is our conscious access to current and past information. You can assume we have this huge store of memory behind us with millions of ideas and thoughts and whatever we can pull up from our memory that’s now a Working Memory.

We also need to include the world around us, with millions of things going on so whatever we can focus our attention to also gets included in our Working Memory. It’s a meeting point between what we’re taking in now and what we know and what’s in our conscious awareness at the moment.

Can you explain how an understanding of Working Memory could benefit a teacher in the classroom?Think of Working Memory as the workspace with which you can handle information at this moment.

You can break this down into 3 parts:

First is the Inner Voice, we call that the phonological loop. Listening to yourself speak now. So if you added 2+2 in your head right now that conscious voice is part of the Working Memory.

Secondly, we also have the visual, spatial sketch pad so that’s what you can also visualise. So you’re hearing 2+2 from your voice and you’re also seeing 2 squares plus 2 squares equals 4 squares in your mind’s eye. That’s Working Memory too.

You also have this 3rd component, this thing called the central executive, which is essentially the foreman, who does the hard work pulling up memories from the past that are relevant.

If you think of it as a piece a paper where kids have dozens of math problems, Working Memory is the maths problem they are working on now. The rest of the paper is their memory and the world around them. But they can only focus on one thing at a time. It’s the spotlight of what they can consciously process at once.

Working Memory

Neuroscientific principles can be quite intimidating to educators as it sounds very technical and academic. Can you help us bridge the gap between neuroscience and education?

So the world of neuroscience and education is tricky, in that, a lot of people were hoping that it would give us answers on how to teach and learn better. In truth, it doesn’t.

We’re going to give you a different way to think about those things that you have long known and by approaching it with a different lens, you will develop new ideas on how to address some of the challenges in a classroom or school.

From a neuroscientific angle there are 3 major principles. When you hear these principles you will think that it’s common knowledge, but once you see them in action in the brain and how it physically works, you may think differently about it.

The 3 major principles are firstly, there’s a hardware limit to the amount of stuff you can keep in Working Memory at one time - why is there a limit?

It is a debated topic, but there is dispute over whether Working Memory capacity is fixed. It is my view that that there is a filter for Working Memory, so information doesn’t come in cleanly. Everything that comes into it is interpreted through your current situation. So the exact same memory can be interpreted differently depending on your situation.

Think of it as having never read the same book twice in the same way. The issue is that at the Working Memory level information comes into it filtered through something else.

The third thing is, what you see is what you get. There is no real changing Working Memory per se, so people often talk about “Oh well I can add more to it, or I can take some away”. You really can’t but the trick is that you don’t really have to. There are ways around without having to have a larger Working Memory, so that you can include more information within it without physically changing how it works.

So rarely if ever, will anybody be able to change their Working Memory but you can apply learning strategies to increase the information that we can hold in our Working Memory at once.

Working Memory Jared -1

How do you work with teachers to translate these principles so that they can enhance their teaching and the learning practices of students in their classrooms?

The first thing I do with teachers is to get them to recognise that they are experts in teaching and learning. If they are going to learn anything from me, I want it to be that nobody in this world knows how to teach, better than teachers.

Teachers are browbeaten to the point that, a lot of them believe they are not the experts. That, this researcher must know how to teach better than me so I’ll listen to him or her.

They are the experts, so what I try and do, is to uncover the veil of neuroscience, psychology, the foundations of human learning.

I try to guide them towards conceptualising teaching and learning differently. It won’t give them new ideas, well per se, it won’t tell them, “Go into your classroom tomorrow and do x”, but it gives them a new way to think about it. Then the buck gets passed back to them. We then work closely to say “what ideas are you getting”, now let’s implement those ideas and let’s systematise them in your classroom, implement and measure the impact of those ideas.

What resources can teachers find to give them more insight and learnings around Working Memory when looking to implement new teaching and learning practices in their classroom?

Working Memory is a tricky one. For a lot of topics I have a lot of good resources such as a good book to read. Working Memory is tricky because it changes so frequently as new discoveries are made. I’m hesitant to say go read this book because a lot of them would be out of date in a year.

Taking a purely academic route, go to Google Scholar and look up Working Memory education. What you can do is get the newest research from everyone on it. Granted, they will all be academic research papers so you don’t want to read them all, as it’s a tedious task. All you want to do is just read the abstract which is usually less than a paragraph.

What you will get from that is the new conceptualisation, and if there are any fresh ways of approaching Working Memory. Most of these papers build on what we already know about Working Memory, so by looking up reviews and meta analyses, it will give you a better understanding of the bigger picture.Related Articles

Jarad Horvath Bio

Jared Cooney Horvath (PhD) is a world-renowned expert in Educational Neuroscience.

Jared specialises in translating neuroscientific principles to enhance teaching and learning and improve learning outcomes in the classroom.

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