Working Memory -


   Working memory is the gateway to all learning. it is the capacity to think above what we are doing that allows us to process, swallow what we need to learn, commit to shorter and longer term memory.  Fluency lessens the demands upon working memory and increases amount of free working memory that can applied to thinking. We need the space to convert what the think about, learn into our longer term memory.

   Working memory is like a processor in a computer. It contains a central executive, which is primarily processes our thoughts, it is a very short-term memory where information can be instantly brought to mind, recovered from long term memory.  It has a phonological loop, which can hold information like a telephone number, for a very short period of time, seconds. It also has a visu-spatial buffer, than can hold visual and spatial information briefly.

  Working memory functions like a 'jotting pad'. It has very limited capacity. If we over load it we can loose everything. It like trying to hold too many oranges at once in our hands. If we try hold an extra one we can drop all of them. 

       Human beings are not very good a multi-tasking. This is why it is dangerous to use a mobile telephone whilst driving. Working memory becomes overloaded.
This is what is referred to as cognitive overload.


       Episodic memory retains memories of events. If we cannot remember where we parked our car, for instance, we can  'dig it' out of our memories if we think hard enough. We can also dig out information from our long term memory, but if we loose information from our working memory, such as an unfamiliar telephone number that we have been given, we will totally loose it.

      Episodic memory also has a time element. We will know when we parked our car. We will remember acquiring it. When we store information and words in our semantic memory we will simply know it. We may remember in our episodic memory where and when we learnt it, but most of the time we will not.

          Learning is process of cognitive growth. The growing of synapses in the brain. When we commit information to long term semantic memory, including words, they need to grown through periodic practice and, or practical usage. We will rarely instantly learn an arbitrary telephone number for instance.

       If we grow what we learn sufficiently, then we will be able to recall it fluently. When we can perform or recall information fluently it does not make demands upon working memory.

Applying a native language orally is the fastest skill the brain can perform. Embedded into language performance is a whole range of skills, multitasks, that need to be combined together to create a fluent performance. This is why it so difficult to construct and successfully speak, apply a new language that is being learnt.

        Even considering what to say or how to respond to someone in a new language makes demands upon working memory. Anxiety negative thoughts can also make demands upon it. When children use word processors, if they give too much attention to typing, finding the right key, then this places demands upon working memory and can reduce the quality of what they write.

       Language that is applied fluently makes very limited demands upon working memory, while unfamiliar second languages usage makes considerable demands upon it

        John Sweller, who is an educational psychologist in New South Wales, Australia who is an authority on cognitive overload, recognises the limitations of learning a subject content through a second, foreign language. He recognised that both learning a language and a subject content causes cognitive overload, because it requires multi-tasking. 

Practical Example

          There was an incident that  Howard recorded in school diary on a professional development course. There was a ten year old boy, Year 5 boy, who appeared to be reasonably intelligent, who was enthusiastically writing about 'waste' in  a science lesson. Howard noticed he was not including capital letters. He pointed out this omission to him and the boy corrected it. 

    Two minutes later Howard noticed that the boy was still not including his capital letters. Howard pointed it out to the boy again. The boy corrected it again. 

       Two minutes later Howard noticed the boy was still omitting his capital letters, but he did not intervene again. The boy was working hard. It was pointless!

      What was happening was the  boy was concentrating so much on what he needed to write about that he was unable to retain what Howard reminded him to do in his working memory. He knew he had to include full stops.  He was suffering from cognitive overload.

        The associated problem is that when we create language in our minds, construct what we want to say, full stops do not feature in our internal spoken language. It requires more mental effort to include them. The boy had quickly forgotten the instruction he had been given, but he knew what to do!

The Spread of Working Memory Capacity

       Garthcole and Alloway (2007) refers there being a seven year spread in children's working memory capacity at the age of 7. Most children working memory is around average, but the spread that some children will have the working memory capacity of 4 year old 
and other of a 12 year old. 

     Working memory increases three-fold between 4 and 15 years old, but the spread of it widens also. This has vast implications for children's education.

      Garthcole () more recently claimed that there is no way of increasing working memory, despite their being claims that it can be improved by training. Kelly and Phillips, who are authorities on dyslexia, also support this view.  If teaching is to be effective, methods need to be applied that take into account the limitations that working imposes on children's learning potential.

     Garthcole also contends that children working memory capacity can be assessed and that it is a more reliable indication of children's educational attainment than I.Q. tests, especially in maths and language. The injustice of life is children with average and more especially lower working memory capacity will always need to work harder to obtain learning success, fluency, but even when they achieve it, they will retain more limited working memory capacity in what they apply. 

Developing Understing of w.m

      Working memory is no like an organ in the brain. It relates to different centers, hubs in the brain and it spread between the two centers of the brain. The centres are connected through white matter. These are the motorways of the brain.

        There is evidence is that working memory is the outcome of brain process like running capacity. White matter has strong influence upon working memory capacity. A lack of white matter has been found in dyslexics.
 al argue that working memory capacity is determined by a myriad of interrelated cocktail of genes and it is unlikely there will be any means of creating transferrable working memory capacity.

The Implications of Working Memory on Children's Learning.De

There is debate taking place in the Times Educational Supplement about why primary children should be branded as failures when they do not achieve the specified attainment targets. There has never been an attempt to create a set running standards in the National Curriculum. This is because it known that children of different shapes and sizes,
cannot reach the same running speed. Our brains are as unique as our faces.

  Although behaviourist teaching and learning methods have been eliminated from professional teaching in favour of a cognitive one, children remain human beings. We all tend to enjoy success and not  failure. 

      There is story of Emile in a Dylan Wiliam video, who was the child in the Hertfordshire class, who tended to answer most of the questions posed to her class. When her teacher put sticks into a jar with children's names on them, so she could select children to answer questions randomly, it was discovered that Emily had removed her stick. When challenged she 'sheepishly' explained that it was because she did not know all the answers!

         There are children, who are the stars of the secondary schools, who when they go to Oxford and Cambridge University they will find that there are other students who are better than them. They will have to confront the concept of failure and not doing a well as others for the first time in their lives. Some will fail to cope.

        Christine Hinton of Harvard University claimed that many deprived American children do not view their education as being relevant to their needs. There was the Channel 4 program the "American School", which visited a school in Carolina in an areas of severe social deprivation, which was populated by Afro-Caribean children, where the children claimed that everyone failed in their school!

      Education is overly obsessed with children failing to meet targets, failing to achieve, which does not provide them with an incentive to work harder, especially as they grow older.

   Garthcole claims children with lower than average working memory find it difficult to concentrate, retain information and assess the quality of their work. They will experience difficulty in revising for examinations. This may mask their true capabilities.

       Learning is a process of cognitive growth. The growing of synases in the brain. Language need to grown in high levels of fluency to apply them effectively. Fluency is and will always remain a matter of degree. The higher the fluency learners, especially in reading, the more effectively learners will learn. 

      Garthcole contends that many learners have and will always find it difficulty to develop fluency in language and maths because of working memory constraints.
Developing Understanding of Working Memory 

 Working memory remains not fully understood. There is developing evidence that another factor that influences children's working memory capacity is the  efficiency of neural wiring, white matter. The parts of working memory are in different parts of the brain. 

         The white matter is essentially the motorways that connect the neurons and centres of the brain. Those with more efficient neural wiring store and recover information faster and more effectively making less demand upon working memory.

       Sue Garthcole has more recentl y contended that neuro research is illustrates that working memory capacity is dictated by genes that influence cognitive processes. It is the outcome like running capacity.


There remains a misguided notion that children are merely empty vessels that learning can be poured into them, what is often referred to the 'feed the dog' view of learning. It is 'Bostick' instant fix view of learning. There are Welsh language tutors in Wales still proclaiming the Welsh language can be learnt in this way.

 The whole Pisa generated educational standards war is based on the assumption that all children have equal learning potential.  What children can realistically achieve is a much more a complicated issue.  Working memory dictates this.

   What is important to recognise is that all education needs to take into account working memory.  If children become cognitively overloaded, then little effective learning will take place. Teaching and education needs to address children's working memory problems.

       The capacity of all children's working memory increases with age.  Earlier is not always better. Overloading children with too much learning at an early age can be counter productive. Children will be more prepared to engage in confidently  learning and applying certain skills at an older age, especially in subjects like maths.

  Setting set standards for all children to achieve any given stage in their learning is futile. The quantity of learning in subjects like mathematics, which relies heavily on working memory,  may not necessarily increase children's learning attainment beyond a given point. We need to accept that children and school attainment, achievement cannot be viewed in absolute terms. What may be a good achievement for certain children will not be for others.

Working Memory is the measurable outcome of certain cognitive process. There is a considerable amount of research taking place in Cambridge University to establish what are the contributory influences on working memory that is related to executive function and whether there are ways of improving working memory.

Sue Garthcole et al

Sue Garthcole - Working Memory Explained    Vid ***

Working Memory - Bristol University - Vid 1 ***

Working Memory (Short Term) - Bristol University - Vid 2 ***  

Working Memory (Distraction) - Bristol University - Vid 3 ***

Working Memory (Strategies) - Bristol University - Vid 4   ***


Alan Baddeley - Working Memory (He Discovered it with Hitch) - Vid ***

Lisa Archibald - Working Memory and Learning - VId

Todd Rose -xx John Sweller The End of the Average- Vid