An expert opinion: Attention and working memory in the classroom

19 October 2018

Author: Kate Mouncey

We were very pleased to hear from scientist, Dr Duncan Astle who works at The University of Cambridge Brain and Cognition Unit. He was the keynote speaker on Day 1 of our course ‘Maximising achievement in linear exams’.

As a Research School, we most commonly use resources such as educational books, EEF Guidance Reports and other recommended papers and publications to help us to find ‘best bets’ for improving teaching and learning. These are all really useful and have offered plenty of food for thought as we work with teachers to look at moving forward with our teaching. However, we rally appreciated the rare opportunity to hear directly from a research scientist in the area of cognitive science. Duncan came to speak to us about attention and working memory in the classroom. This area has been a strong focus of attention in our work over the last couple of years. The information below is an attempt at summarising the key points from Duncan’s fascinating talk:

Attention and Working Memory in the Classroom

There are some popular neuro-myths believed by many people which can influence how we teach, or make their way into some teaching and learning strategies. Some of the most popular myths include:

1.       We only use x% of our brains – this isn’t true, we all use all of our brains. This is clear when someone has a specific, severe brain injury. They very often have profound cognitive difficulties.

2.       Brains are not predisposed to a particular learning styles such as ‘kinaesthetic’ or ‘visual’ learning.

3.       There is little evidence that very specific certain activities happen in the left and right hand side of the brain, or that an individual has a more prominent side of their brain.

Duncan then moved on to discussing ‘cognition’ and how it relates to the physiology of the brain and actual learning, or education. There are two main types of memory; ‘Working Memory’ (WM) and ‘Long-term Memory’ (LM). We often think of long-term memory as too long-term. It is, in fact, any thoughts that remain a few minutes after an event. It includes information such as where a car was parked or where a room is located in a new environment. Working memory is like files we may have open on a desktop, it includes active tools relevant to the task being undertaken at that moment. An example might be holding information about directions just given to get to a location. The information will be used and then not held much longer. There is a strict capacity limit and it is prone to catastrophic loss (info may have to be reintroduced later). WM is very important in education and learning as it helps students to understand a concept and instructions long enough to learn from it and make the next steps.

Research shows that WM increases steadily between ages 4-14, it seems to plateau after age 14. There is a very wide variability within each age band and so we can expect wide differences in WM within any cohort. It is thought that brain developmental changes continue in the mid 20s, so there is still plenty of uncertainty, but WM does seem to tail off in its development in the mid-teens.

Why do we care about WM?

A child’s working memory capacity is very closely linked to their academic attainment. There have been many large-scale tests on this at Cambridge and at other research institutions. One such trial tested WM in students within 6 weeks of starting school (age 4) and then correlated this to their KS1 maths and English scores (age 7). There was a very close correlation between these variables.

English attainment is very closely linked to WM scores, maths is even more closely linked. In another research project, when predicting pupils numeracy skills at age 8-11, the best predictor is their numeracy scores two years previously. This is unsurprising. However, the second best predictor is their spatial WM.

Why does WM vary so widely?

Researchers have looked at the area of communication within the brain; this is how different areas and functions within the brain communicate with each other to carry out a task. An example could be a goal to go to a shop to buy red applies. Brain area A receives the message about this goal, brain area B processes visual info in the shop to buy the right product. There needs to be communication between the goal and the action. It is common for someone to become distracted and go off task. Research has shown that there are different areas dealing with these different tasks.

Studying brains of children have looked into these connections, and there are clear differences in the success of this communication between children. This seems very closely linked to WM scores. We don’t know why – it could be genetic, or could be about experience (environment v genetics).

More than 80% of children with poor WM fail to achieve expected levels of attainment in either reading or maths (Gathercole and Alloway 2008).

Children with poor WM can struggle to complete all stages of multiple stage instruction. They can only retain a bit of info at any one time. They can be highly distracted, ‘day-dreaming’, often sharing similar characteristics to those with an SEN diagnosis. Children with poor WM match a lot of the criteria from the current ADHD diagnostic criteria. Patterns from tests show that children diagnosed with ADHD tend to struggle with WM tasks. Those with a formal diagnosis receive more support but those without and with poor WM, don’t often have this support.

Is it possible to boost children’s WM skills?

Can we train WM to help it to improve? The advice is that any commercial programme used for this type of training should be tested independently. Duncan’s lab has tested a few of these through RCTs. One programme widely used by UK schools advertises that it can improve WM through games; there is a varied diet of exercises which get gradually harder to push them just beyond their limit. It did seem to improve WM, with greater scores on the tasks being undertaken. Brain images seemed to correspond to better connections in the brain.

However, children didn’t  improve in general WM, in areas like following instructions, or improvements in maths or reading. Another large survey in Australia looking at another programme showed similar findings. There has been no large study on a specific programme sold to improve WM which has proved that it can help students with learning in areas such as maths and literacy.

The best approach seen so far to supporting working memory in a class is to consider how we structure learning to reduce needless memory demands.

Some of the more trivial elements of teaching such as verbal instructions or a complex task can cause problems and don’t enable students to focus on the actual content. Duncan advised that we need to do what we can to reduce overload and really consider how we set up a lesson to structure tasks and break down content, so that students can focus on key learning. An excellent resource recommended by Duncan to support possible strategies in the classroom can be found HERE

To conclude, this is a very complex problem but one which affects us every day as teachers and one which should be a central consideration in how we plan for learning in our classrooms. The rest of our learning on the course looked at a number of practical strategies which can use to reduce cognitive load as suggested by Duncan. It was fantastic to hear from a real expert and very encouraging to hear that we may be on the right lines in the consideration of techniques in this area to help learners in the most effective way.

Further reading with suggested teaching strategies:

Mccrea, P. (2017) Memorable Teaching.

Willingham, D. (2009) Why don’t students like school?. Jossey Bass.

Didau, D. and Rose, N. (2016) What every teacher needs to know about pyschology.John Catt Educational Ltd.

Posted on 19 October 2018
Posted in: Blog

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