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Thanks for the Working Memory

Listening to Joni’s inspiring keynote address at the recent International Thinking Skills Conference, I was reminded of the pivotal role that the working memory plays in the learning process.

In the real world of education, everyone is frantically trying to ‘get it right’.

Some educators are clear about what ‘it’ actually means for their school and base their vision and practice on clear and robust evidence of what actually makes a difference to the achievement of children. These educators create resilient organisations based on authentic education and have no fear of the inspector calling. Others flit about with no real vision, knee-jerking their way through trying to stay out of a damaging inspection judgement. Some in the latter category tend to base their work on anecdote (they’ve been to a meeting and a mate of theirs has put them onto some ‘quick win’ solution for raising standards) or worse prejudice (they have a particular ‘way’ they favour and they are immovable from it and certainly do not welcome change even though this ‘way’ hasn’t ever shown signs of delivering high quality education with high achievement). So, what does the former approach actually look like?

Well, for a start, it has a clear focus based on robust and extensive evidence that is clear and uncluttered by impenetrable theory. Let’s face it, who out there would honestly be foolish enough to front up to being all for evidence averse practice! As far as a clear focus, it would be hard to find many educators out there who would not agree to children’s progress being paramount, alongside their welfare and safety of course.


The Goldilocks Principle

If we work back from this position evidentially, we see that progress comes as a consequence of learning. Clearly, children are not going to improve if they do not learn new concepts and skills. In order to learn, thinking is vital as just going through the motions superficially might be an easy option but real learning reflects the saying ‘no pain, no gain’. Learning comes as a consequence of thinking. If children merely practice what they can already do, then thinking is minimal. So, real thinking comes as a consequence of what Anders Ericsson calls deliberate practice which in turn comes as a consequence of working in one’s zone of proximal development. This is a place where one is working just outside one’s comfort zone and follows the Goldilocks principle – not too hard, not too easy, just right. Now it is here that the stunningly insightful, robustly evidenced and practical work of Dr Joni Holmes comes into the educational equation.

Listening to Joni’s inspiring keynote address at the recent International Thinking Skills Conference, I was reminded of the
pivotal role that the working memory plays in the learning process.

Working Memory
Click on image to view presentation


Being able to ‘hold’ information, concepts and processes in one’s consciousness to solve problems and work in one’s zone of proximal development through deliberate practice relies on a well developed and effective working memory. If children have deficiencies in their working memory or have not been helped through informed teaching to improve their working memory, then the cognitive load becomes so great that learning becomes more or less impossible. For those who view Bloom’s Taxonomy as a hierarchy where remembering sits at the bottom, well below creativity which sits at the top of the pyramid, I would suggest that you follow the link to Joni’s keynote. Prepare to see the pyramid turn upside down!

As the song title sort of goes, ‘Thanks for the memory…’. A big thank you goes to Dr Joni Holmes if you ask me. Educators take note and bring this important evidence into your practice.

Dr Dave Walters
Honorary Research Fellow, Exeter University Graduate School of Education
Director of Research, Thinking Matters

See here for a copy of Dr Joni Holmes's keynote presentation on Managing Working Memory