Simple working memory for teachers

Theory of Memory

Much has been written about how we think memory works. I’ll just give some of the headlines and describe the bits that have most impact on teaching and learning.

First a simplified view of what is called working memory derived from the model presented by Baddeley & Hitch, 1974. The model describes a mechanism rather that particular places in the brain. You could not, for example, identify a lump of the brain which was working memory.


Sensory Memory                       Central Executive                              Long term memory



Phonological loop                    Episodic Buffer                    Visuospatial Sketchpad


The central executive is the name given to the process in the brain that manages the activity of inspecting the sensory information that comes into the working memory. One function of the central executive is to pay attention to sensory inputs.

Working memory is where stuff we detect via our senses gets initially processed. In the phonological loop the inputs loop around, gradually decaying over a matter of seconds. A similar process happens in the visuospatial sketchpad.

A critical issue for teachers about working memory is that it is a very short term. Think of a telephone number you have just been told and need to remember. To keep it in working memory while we look for somewhere to write it down we have to keep saying the number to ourselves. To keep it looping.

Working memory has a small capacity. Cognitive scientists now believe it can retain around 4 items. The size of these items depends on whether we know them already, ie they are in long term memory, or if they are new.

Working memory function, with its limited capacity and short term loop, is also where we engage in the process called thinking which uses some of the already limited capacity. The processing of what we think about takes up working memory.

Working memory is soon overwritten by other information, we pay attention to, coming from our senses. Then what was there is probably lost. This has an impact on the effect of distractions while learning.

If the central executive decides that the information currently in working memory is worth paying attention, and it does this by checking with material already stored in long term memory, then this information gets encoded (in some way in patterns of neurons, cells in the brain) and stored.

Cognitive load relates to the amount of information working memory can deal with. Cognitive overload means we are bombarding working memory with more than it can cope with. In general, teachers should be doing what they can to avoid cognitive overload in their learners and in themselves while teaching.

Long term memory is exactly that. The place(s) where memories that we keep get stored.

But the memory stored in long term memory is not automatically accessible. We can only recall memories if the central executive can access them somehow. This, in teaching, is where methods to strengthen recall come in.

As far as we know there is no limit to the amount that long term memory can hold. When working memory recalls from long term memory the chunks can be quite large. Some elements in long term memory are not chunked and take up more working memory when recalled. We can manipulate large amounts of ‘knowledge’ in working memory if it comes from the store in long term memory.




Blog – Why anything works


If some teaching methods are poor why do they work?


Being able to say “It works for me” allows some teachers to ignore the evidence from psychology and cognitive science about what works.


Ir means debate continue around the issues of compliance, freedom, agency, choice, independence, values, content, teacher professionalism, and other matters. Please add to the list.


So how come we are unable to resolve this matter?


I offer a tentative suggestion for a model that can be adjusted in the light of real evidence. If you have some then please comment. I’ll adjust the model accordingly.


The model represents 100% of learners of school age. Given my secondary background I think this may well be more applicable to that age range. Also I’ll limit it to year 7 to year 11.


Will learn whatever Learn at home Good relationships Luck Could well suffer
57% 5% 10% 5% ** 23%
who have good prior background knowledge. Who are likely to learn by whatever reasonable method, in class who go home and learn via a textbook or YouTube who learn with some teachers because they get on so well because of good relationships who are just lucky could this group have achieved more with the appropriate science based methods?

I am amending the percentages as different data is provided.


** 23% have very low literacy  Thanks to @SusanGodsland

Now. Pretty obviously I have no secure evidence basis for the percentages, other than my own experience. What I am saying is that the vast majority of kids will learn, at least reasonably well, good grades at GCSE or, at least, as well as prior attainment predicts. By whatever method the teacher chooses. I would put this at around 75% to 80% who are for various reasons pretty method independent. There is also an effect where revision classes in year 11 can increase the exam chances of some children who had not, until that point, understood the work.


Also, for children who are struggling and whose parents can and choose to pay, there are tutors. Also I know of no tutors who do anything other than ‘tell’ their tutees. I know of no tutors who operate via discovery methods.


My message is quite simply that the vast majority of children they will do reasonably well whatever methods their teacher chooses. They are either advantaged by their background or by efforts that compensate for gaps.


I could seem that we can say then that methods do not matter. But what about the 15%, or whatever number it comes to, and their lack of success? Who are they? Well my assertion is that they are likely to be:


  • Disadvantaged – ie they do not have a background that provided them with supportive prior learning environments, or environments that did not value learning highly enough.


  • Uninspired – because they were not learning well and fell behind.
  • Allowed to fail – their teacher or school system didn’t react to them not knowing stuff as well as possible.


  • Poor readers – I would suggest that their phonics teaching had been poor, or lack of prior knowledge.


  • Poor behaviour – either their own or in classes where good learning behaviours were not the norm.


  • Low expectations – schools who believe “Children like these…”


I am sure you can add to the list.
Do you identify the features of the children who are not doing well in your own subject and school? If you do, what are the common characteristics? What could be done about it?

A blog about a hashtag


A fairly prolific tweeter, @PaulGarvey4, uses the following hashtag




Despite several others telling him that there are issues with this, he continues to use it. That is clearly his right. It is clear that 140 characters is not enough to properly explain to Paul why this hashtag is, well, pointless and also potentially harmful.


First, “way” is not defined. Does he mean an activity carried out in a classroom? Like a card sort? Probably not. Does he mean a system such as explicit instruction? Closer, I think. Does he mean the set of activities that a teacher we call progressive might use? Sort of.


One issue is the lack of definition. Paul uses the hashtag to say that nothing works everywhere and, I guess, any method can work somewhere. The main query is whether or not the hashtag says anything of importance. Does it help us move on? Does it help us improve learning for any group of children? I think it does not.


I actually think it is damaging because it allows a teacher who is less confident using a particular technique to claim that there is no best way overall so they do not have to seek a better ‘way’. The issue I have with that is that we should not be simply seeking to justify what we currently do, but we should be looking for improved ‘ways’. The ‘way’ we choose should not be constrained by our current, personal ability to work with children. Teachers are professionals and should seek self improvement. We need to find the best possible ‘way’ rather than be satisfied with the status quo.


Also, we should be using evidence outside our own experience as well as considering the constraints imposed by the circumstances in which we work. For example, I am perfectly willing to accept that if one teacher operates in ‘ways’ that are very different from another teacher of the same subject, then that is less likely to be well supported and may not ‘work’ particularly well.


But my main problem with #NoBestWayOverAll is what does it say? What it says MUST be true and especially in education where the variables are so numerous. It is like saying “air is air and water is water”. That statement is most certainly true, but what can it possibly add to our knowledge base. So the hashtag has no validity, has no value other than it is


too true to be good.

Please. Paul, invent a hashtag that can be defined and has a definition having some value in moving us on. Did you know that ‘water is wet’?

Changing Behaviour

This brief blog was triggered by a Tweet by @MrBlachford. He said that a school’s behaviour policy mattered. That is true and you will know that my belief is that if a child misbehaves in more than one lesson the responsibility for action lies with the leadership of the school and not with the teacher, primarily.

The tweet triggered a simple thought. What is the point of a behaviour policy? Given whatever we do in schools the focus is learning how about we change to idea of a behaviour policy, often a policy which deals with misbehaviour, to a policy entitled

‘attitude to learning’?

I am thinking that this might change the focus to be closer to that which we want. Learning.

We would do many of the things that a good behaviour policy would contain but what else might it make us focus on?

Redrawing Bloom’s

I have to admit that I like Bloom’s taxonomy. He wrote a few but the education one that is a pyramid. Recently on Twitter the discussion has arisen again with the original intention of the idea, not an experimental thing by any means but an idea – a framework as Bloom called it, with the original idea of knowledge being the critical fundamental to the ‘higher order’ skills. The pyramid nature of Bloom’s is probably what causes the issue. Bit like a ladder or a hill. The temptation is to think the top of the tree is the place to be. Somehow it has more value that the base. You can see a long way from the top of the tree.Blooms Delivery ServiceDoug Lemov suggests this redrawing. The foundation, knowledge, is the fuel that leads us to the top. It does increase the emphasis on knowledge, the knowledge needed to be able to evaluate and to be creative. But it still has the implication that the important thing is the top.

@daviddidau bloogged about Bloom’s and constructed his own take on the diagram.

It has lots of stuff in there and needs time to digest. is it saying what Bloom’s encapsulates with his big fat foundation of knowledge? Interesting representation but I quite like to stick with a more formal and better tested version,. Something closer to Bloom’s original.

@dylanwiliam gave us this.

Dylan Wiliam Blooms

My problem is that I don’t see how comprehension, understanding of the knowledge, can’t also be fundamental. What asked Dylan said he did not want comprehension to be implied as leading to the others. It might depend on how you define knowledge. Is knowledge a rote thing? if it is then we do need comprehension.

I have played around with Dylan’s diagram. I have tried this:

Blooms Version 1

And then this:

Blooms Version 1 (3)

Not sure any of them work in all circumstances. But do any stop the silly rush to the top of the pile?

Six Thinking Hats

Promoted by @gragAshman’s piece entitles The Ministry of Silly Hats   that he wrote sometime in 2013 I decided to respond. I like Greg’s work and blogs which are well evidenced and often fit with my own less evidenced but feel-right views. I had mentioned on Twitter that I thought Six Hats was ok and while I know a number of other folk on Twitter disagree I have never seen any evidence to oppose. I was told that if I expected another to use the six hats system then I needed to provide the evidence. I agree. I am not directly promoting the use but I’d be happy, in an odd sort of way, for someone to show it is wrong.

I have not found any contrary evidence. My positive view comes from my own use of the process, developed by Edward de Bono. His proposition is that in the West we tend to knowcj=k ideas down; find things that are wrong with something rather than explore and seek solutions. We tend to have a reaction to an issue which is less concerned with the evidence or benefits than with whether or not an idea fits with our own current views. That seems to me to be true.

I have used Thinking Hats for quite a while and though not all my thinking by any means uses the discipline, probably I am too lazy and want a quick answer, when I do use it I feel I have better explored the issue. I probably come up with a more mellow response than I do when I just react.

A couple of points that I want to pick up from Greg’s piece.

I have never actually put on a coloured hat to identify the ‘type’ or mode of thinking. I do think that is silly. It s what might happen in The Office! I am not sure if de Bono himself actually wanted the hats to be real things.

Greg says that thinking depends on knowledge. Bit of a truism there. Who would deny that? Well ……… no, different post! Keep the focus. he implies because there is only one white hat that the status and value of knowledge is equivalent to any other hat. Not true. the white hat, meaning what knowledge do we have that might be relevant to the issue can be kept on for longer and put on more than once.

Anyway, I don’t mind being in a minority. I am not trying to get you to use Six Hats. I can’t find any research that either supports or denies that the system works. I have found it helps. perhaps that is just me. And generally, I like the work of Edward de Bono.

BUT he did write a book called Six Action Shoes. He says in the foreword to the book that he wrote in on an overnight flight from England to New Zeland. The book is unmitigated crap. It reads like a book written by someone hung over on a 24 hour plane journey!

Thanks Greg. Red, Yellow, Green, White, and Purple.

Red, Yellow, Green, White, and Purple. Might be a song there. 8-))

Kinesthetic Learners – damage caused by learning styles.

Some time ago on Twitter someone asked about the actual cost of teachers using the meshing of learning styles hypothesis as a way of structuring learning. Was the cost that great?

The simple answer is reached by thinking about the training costs. Consultants, like me, don’t come cheap. 8-))

The second cost is the opportunity cost. You could have been learning something more worthwhile in the time spent learning about and then planning for different learning styles. Children will have wasted time taking a ‘test’ to see which style they were.

The above all come quite quickly to mind.

Another ‘cost’ is the deception teachers and others were under through having been taught and then having used an incorrect, better to say unevidenced, theory. Bit like believing that trolls actually live under bridges. Silly.

But the effect I have not yet seen anyone account for concerns those kids who were identified as kinesthetic. What happened is that they were given kinesthetic activities to do. Card sorts were popular. Making things from cardboard. Placing answers on cards and posters around the room. they did not learn a great deal from these activities but it mostly kept them quiet.

The damage was that these activities diverted our attention away from what these kinesthetic learners actually needed. They fell further and further behind and this was justified as they were kinesthetic learners who were not really suited to academic learning. they sometimes did well at sport, or pottery, or making things in design technology. They got put on the workshop mechanics courses at the local FE establishment. They did bricklaying.

What they mostly needed was reteaching in how to read and to increase their general knowledge. They had low literacy skills not because they were kinesthetic learners but because they had poor reading skills. As Pamela Snow puts it they were victims of ‘edugenic academic failure’. This is academic failure caused by education!

That is a real cost of matching teaching to learning styles.