Obsessed With Working Memory: Part I

When I attended my first Learning and the Brain conference, I had never even heard of working memory.

Now, I obsess over working memory. And, I think all classroom teachers should join me.

Heck, I think everyone who cares about learning, curriculum, teacher training, and education should think about working memory. All. The. Time.

In this series of posts, I’ll start by defining working memory (WM) today. And in succeeding posts, I’ll talk about using that knowledge most helpfully.

Trust me: the more we think about WM, the more our students learn.

Working Memory: An Example

As an example of WM in action, I’m going to give you a list of 5 words. Please put those words in alphabetical order. IN YOUR HEAD. (That’s right: don’t write anything down…)

Okay, here’s the list:

Think of the five workdays of the week. (Hint: if you live in a Western society, the first one is ‘Monday.’)

Now, go ahead and put those five words into alphabetical order. Don’t peek. I’ll wait…


Probably you came up with this list:

Friday, Monday, Thursday, Tuesday, Wednesday

I do this exercise with teachers often. For most everyone, that’s fairly simple to do. I’m guessing you got it right quite easily.

Working Memory: A Definition

To succeed at that task, you undertook four mental processes.

First, you selected relevant information. Specifically, you selected the instructions that you read. And, you looked into your long-term memory to select the workdays of the week.

Next, you held that information. If you had let go of the instructions, or of the days of the week, you couldn’t have completed the task.

Third, you reorganized the days of the week according to the instructions. You started with a chronological list (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday…), and converted it into an alphabetical lest (Friday, Monday, Thursday…).

In many WM tasks (but not this one), you might not only reorganize, but also combine information. If, for instance, you added up 7+12+4+18+6 in your head, you selected, held, and combined those numbers into a new number.


Working memory is a limited, short-term memory capacity that selects, holds, reorganizes, and combines information from multiple sources.

In a later post, I’ll talk about some finer points in the definition of WM. For the time being, focus on those four verbs: select, hold, reorganize, combine.

Working Memory: An Acronym

Because WM is so important, it would be great if there were a handy acronym. Happily, there is!





What does that get you? SHREK! (I know: I misspelled ‘combine.’ But: I lived in Prague for a year, so you can forgive me for that useful alteration.)

Working Memory in the Classroom

Now, ask yourself: which of these classroom tasks requires working memory?

That is: in which of these cases do your students have to select, hold, reorganize, and/or combine information?

Solving a word problem.

Comparing W.E.B. du Bois and Booker T. Washington.

Transposing a song into a new key.

Applying a new phonics rule to various combinations of letters.

Choreographing a dance routine.

The correct answer is: ALL OF THEM.

In fact, practically everything we do in school classrooms requires working memory. Often, it requires A LOT of working memory.

To Sum Up

We use WM to select, hold, reorganize, and combine (SHREK) information.

Students use WM constantly in classrooms, for practically everything they do.

Simply put: no academic information gets into long-term memory except through working memory. It’s that important.

Up next: we’ll highlight key facts about WM. Then we’ll talk about using that knowledge in your teaching.

If you’d like some homework, here it is:

Ask yourself: what work that students do in your own classroom requires working memory? Try to be specific: what are they selecting? What are they holding? And so forth…

Also ask yourself: what work does not require WM?

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