Connecting dots for digital learning and teaching

Making, Playing, Learning and Working Memory

Working memory measures potential to learn, and can be crucial in supporting classroom achievement, says Tracy Packiam Alloway. She researches working memory at the University of North Florida and has developed the world’s first standardised working memory tests for educators. Her latest book is an edited collection, Working Memory: The Connected Intelligence, published by Psychology Press. According to this interview with her:

You could think of it as the brain’s conductor. So for example, when we speak, working memory would be bringing the words that we know together and connecting them into a coherent sentence. It’s the conscious processing of information. We see working memory at work not just in education – researchers have looked at how working memory plays a critical role in a whole range of different daily functions.

The crucial aspect, which is very exciting, is that working memory is not dependent on environment.

Question: You’ve done work with teachers to find out how they see children with poor working memory.

A lot of times, they describe these children as daydreamers, or maybe just not trying hard enough, or unmotivated. As they get older, they begin to disengage with education, they begin to feel “I can’t do it, I’m going to fail, so why should I try?” The gap between them and their peers begins to widen, because they feel more and more frustrated. These are common features of students with poor working memory.

Question: What it is about working memory that makes the students feel that way?

In some cases, if the working memory is right at the borderline, they may find coping strategies to compensate until the learning is too difficult and then it overwhelms them. When I talk to educators, I often refer to working memory like a Post-it note. If they have a small note, they may do fine on some talks but the minute those tasks overload the Post-it they start struggling.

So, have you ever wondered why some kids can memorize all details of their favorite movie series or very complicated games (like World of Warcraft), but can’t keep some simple math equations in minds?  Here we recommend readers to view the Heart-Brain Connection presented by professor Richard Davidson on December 10, 2007, at the CASEL Forum, an event in New York City that brought together seventy-five global leaders in education and related fields to raise awareness about social and emotional learning (SEL) and introduce important scientific findings related to SEL. (curated by Edutopia)

Many findings are worth our note-taking:

We have shown that if you make an individual anxious, this is done in adolescents, you actually interfere with your ability to perform certain kinds of working memory tasks. And this is a study that involved very, very careful experimental controls. We were able to show that it’s specifically the anxiety that is interfering with this particular kind of working memory and the more anxious a person is the worse their working memory performance. We’ve replicated it in another study here and we’ve shown that it’s specifically through changes in the prefrontal cortex that the interference in memory occurs. And so, the implication here is that if you can lower your anxiety, if you are learning skills to calm you, you will improve the function of the prefrontal cortex. It will be less jangled by threats that occur in your environment and you’ll actually not only show improved emotion but you will also show improved cognition, you will do better on tests like this of working memory which other research indicates underlies a lot of academic performance.

Social-emotional learning is an empirically verified strategy to improve skills of emotion regulation and social adaptation and, as such, social-emotional learning likely produces beneficial changes in the brain. Education that shapes the child’s brain and likely produces these kinds of alterations lay the foundation for all future learning for emotion regulation and for social functioning. Qualities such as patience, calmness, cooperation and kindness should really now best be regarded as skills that can be trained. They are not traits that we are irrevocably given by our early environment or by our genetics but everything we now know about the brain, including down to the level of gene expression, indicates that training like social and emotional learning can shape the brain and literally change gene expression in the brain.

brain-based learning

Check out for more information about how to improve learning with the knowledge of brain’s functions : Brain-Based Learning: Separating Fact and Fiction, the following 3 facts really give the priorities :

Putting learning in context, making learning relevant, facilitating an environment for playing to learn without the anxiety of fear to fail are the best solutions to engage learners. When we play games, failures are only feedback signals telling us to modify our approaches. The playfulness itself could bring positive emotions to learning. To explore more on this , a series of short films that explores the underlying thinking of  six principles of connected learning: interests, peers, youth as producers, networks, shared purpose and academics might lead us to new possibilities of the internet, social media and the information age. It’s from DMLcentral. Play, as a state of being,  might hold answers for the reimagining of education. Check it out here.


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“Tell me and I will forget, show me and I may remember, involve me and I will understand.” -------- Chinese Wisdom "Games are the most elevated form of investigation." -------- Albert Einstein
"I'm calling for investments in educational technology that will help create digital tutors that are as effective as personal tutors, educational software as compelling as the best video game," President Barack Obama said while touring a tech-focused Boston school (year 2011).
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