Overwhelmed Teachers: The Working-Memory Story (Part II) [Updated with Link]

Last week, I offered an unusual take on working memory in the classroom.

Typically, I (and other writers) focus on the dangers of students’ working memory overload. Of course, we SHOULD focus on that problem — when students’ working memory is overloaded, they stop learning (temporarily).

Young teacher wearing sweater and glasses sitting on desk at kindergarten clueless and confused expression with arms and hands raised.

But last week, I focused on the dangers of a teacher’s working memory overload.

If I’m experiencing cognitive muddle, I won’t be able to explain concepts clearly, or answer questions coherently, or remember important school announcements. (Or, remember to buy the dog food on my drive home.)

So, I suggested teachers start by ANTICIPATING potential causes of working memory overload. (Say: teaching a complicated concept, or, unusual stresses at home.)

We should also be able to IDENTIFY working memory overload when it happens. (When my own working memory gets overloaded, I lose track of sentences and start garbling words.)

Next up:

Step #3: SOLVING — or mitigating, or reducing — working memory problems.

As always, the specific strategies that benefit me might not work for you. As my mantra goes: “don’t just do this thing; instead, think this way.”

The Power of Routines

By definition, routines live in long-term memory. Therefore, I don’t need to process them in working memory.

For that reason, classroom routines reduce my working memory load. (Important additional benefit: they also reduce working memory load for my students.)

So: I (almost) always begin class with a “do now” exercise. When students enter the classroom, they see that I’ve written questions on the board. They sit down and start writing their answers in their notebooks.

Once that routine has formed, I can use my working memory to process the answers that they’re writing, not to think about what I should be doing at this moment.

After we discuss their answers to my “do now” questions, I (almost) always review the previous night’s homework. I then remind them of their homework for the upcoming class. (This habit means that I don’t have to scramble and shout the assignment at them as they’re going out the door.)

Turn and talk? We have a routine.

Cold call? We have a routine.

Write your answers on the board? See previous answer.

By the way, Peps Mccrea wisely notes that creating routines takes time. That is: we initially spend class time on routine building, and therefore have less time for — say — learning.

But: once those routines are in place, we GAIN lots more time than we spent. And, because my working memory load has been reduced, I’ve got more working memory headroom to teach effectively.

Offload the Job

Of course, lots of the teaching work we do requires nimble and effective response to moment-by-moment events — responses that can’t be made into a routine.

In these cases, recruiting working memory allies can be an enormous boon.

During the 2021-22 school year, I had the great good forture of sharing a class with another teacher.

When I found myself getting verbally tangled — a clear sign of working memory overload — I would often hand off:

“Oh, wow, I can feel a mental traffic jam coming on. Mr. Kim, can you take over? What was I saying? Can you clarify the muddle I just made?”

He would then un-knot the explanatory thread I had tangled, and I’d have time to regain my mental bearings.

This strategy also helped out during hybrid teaching.

With most of my students seated in the classroom before me, I could quite easily forget all about the one or two “participating” from the iPad.

A wise colleague suggested creating a “buddy” system. The remote students picked an in-class buddy — and the buddy would check in to be sure they understood the discussion, heard their classmates’ comments, and had a chance to ask questions.

Because the buddy had that responsibility, I didn’t have to worry about it so much. Voila: working memory load reduced.

Offload, Part II

As I noted last week, working memory selects, holds, reorganizes, and combines bits of information.

So, the less information I have to “select and hold,” the lower the working memory load.

One easy way to offload the “select/hold” responsibilities: WRITE STUFF DOWN.

A few examples:

Following Ollie Lovell’s advice, I’ve started crafting “bullet-proof definitions” of important concepts. Because such a definition requires precision and nuance, it’s easy to get the words or the phrasing wrong.

For those reasons, I write down my bullet-proof definitions. I don’t have to use working memory to recall the nuances; I’ve got them on the page right in front of me.

Another strategy:

I write down the start/end times for each of my lesson-plan segments.

That is: my lesson plan might note that we’ll have a discussion about comic and tragic symbols in Act 3 Scene 4 of Macbeth — the famous “banquet scene.”

My notes will include the important line-numbers and passages to highlight.

And, I’ll also write down the times: the discussion begins at 10:12, and goes to 10:32.

This level of detail might sound silly. However, if I DON’T write those times, my working memory will be extra cluttered.

That is: part of my working memory will be processing our discussion (“Notice that Benjamin’s point contradicts Ana’s earlier argument. Can we resolve that disagreement?”).

But at least some of my working memory will be trying to calculate how much more time to spend (“If I let this part of the discussion go on to long, then we won’t have time Act 4 Scene 1. When should I stop?”)

That extra working-memory drag will slow down my processing ability for the scene discussion.

These simple steps to offload working memory demands help me focus on the teaching part of my job.

Your Turn

The strategies I’ve outlined above have helped me reduce the working-memory demands of my own teaching. In theory, anyway, they should help me teach more effectively. (You’ll have to ask my students how effective they’ve really been…)

Of course, these specific strategies might not help you.

The goal, therefore, is NOT that you do what I do. Instead, I hope you’ll think the way I thought: how to anticipate, identify, and reduce working-memory problems.

The more time you devote to these steps, the lower your working memory demands will be. The result: your students too will appreciate the clarity and focus of your classroom.


Update: 2/4/24

It seems I’m not the only one focusing on working memory overload for teachers.

Here’s a recent blog post from Doug Lemov — with videos!

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