Ten top tips for gaining the attention of working memory

The process of learning is the interaction between our sensory memory and our long-term memory.

Our sensory memory is made up of: what we see – this is called our iconic memory; what we hear – this is called our echoic memory; and what we touch – our haptic memory.

Our long-term memory is where new information is stored and from which it can be recalled when needed, but we cannot directly access the information stored in our long-term memory – instead, this interaction between our sensory memory and our long-term memory occurs in the working memory.

It follows, therefore, that in order to help our pupils to learn we need to take these three steps:

First, we need to create a positive learning environment in order to stimulate sensory memory

Second, we need to make pupils think hard but efficiently in order to gain the attention of – but cheat – working memory

And third, we need to plan for deliberate practice in order to improve storage in, and retrieval from, long-term memory

I shared my top ten tips for creating a positive learning environment in order to stimulate sensory memory here.

Here are my top ten tips for making pupils think hard but efficiently in order to gain the attention of working memory:

1. Pitch perfect

Pitch work in pupils’ ‘struggle zones’.

Work that is pitched in the ‘struggle zone’ is work that is challenging but achievable with time, effort and support; work that is just beyond pupils’ current capabilities but within their reach. If the work is too easy, pupils will complete it out of habit, that is to say with near automaticity – without thinking about it and therefore without learning. If the work is too difficult, pupils will do one of two things: either they will not even attempt it (judging it to be a fruitless task); or else they will attempt it but quickly overload their working memory and fail to complete the task. Either way, learning – or the deliberate practice of prior learning – will not occur and pupils will become demotivated.

Knowing where pupils’ struggle zones are located involves lots of data in the widest sense of the word – knowing what pupils can do and cannot yet do (perhaps through frequent, formative assessments such as quizzes and the use of hinge questions), knowing how pupils like to learn and what motivates them, and knowing what barriers to learning – including misconceptions – pupils are likely to face.

2. Hard times

Plan for desirable difficulties.

Position roadblocks along pupils’ learning journeys to slow down their initial encoding of new information in order to improve the subsequent storage strength of that information, and the ease and efficiency with which that information can later be retrieved from long-term memory.

Spaced and interleaved practice are forms of desirable difficulty, but so too is using more complex language and a hard-to-decipher font in written materials. Whatever roadblock is used, it is important to remember that learning should not be easy or indeed pleasurable – rather, it should involve over-learning, spiralling up and down the knowledge continuum, grappling with challenging tasks.

3. Challenge

Provide high levels of challenge for every pupil but reduce the threat level.

Have high expectations of every pupil in the class – ensuring there is no hiding place and no dumbing down of materials or outcomes. But encourage pupils to accept the challenge by creating a culture in which the threat level is reduced or removed. This means fostering an ethos – through your words and actions and through the way you manage pupils’ interactions – in which no pupil feels humiliated if they fall short of a difficult task and every pupil knows that they will learn from the experience of making mistakes and will perform better next time.

4. Teach to the top.

Teach the knowledge and skills the top-performing pupil in the class will be able to master with the benefit of time, effort and support.

In other words, don’t pitch class work to the middle of the bell curve, teaching the ‘average’ pupil then scaffolding the lower performing pupils and stretching the higher-performing. Instead, teach the knowledge and skills that the top-performing pupil in the class will be able to master with time, effort and support. Teaching to the top also means modelling high expectations of all pupils, no matter their starting points and backgrounds.

Teaching to the top could take the form of mastery learning whereby every pupil in the class is taught the same content and is expected to achieve the same outcomes, albeit acknowledging that some pupils will take longer than others to achieve those outcomes and will need more support along the way. In other words, mastery learning is not about dumbing down, placing a glass ceiling on what some pupils can achieve. Mastery learning – first proposed by Benjamin Bloom in 1968 – insists that every pupil achieves a certain level of mastery (say, 80% in a test) before moving on to the next thing. If a pupil does not achieve 80%, they are given extra support and more time before being tested again.

Mastery learning is about focusing on the amount of time and support different pupils get in order to achieve the same learning goals, rather than focusing on differences in ability and lowering the intended outcomes for some. In a mastery learning classroom, all pupils achieve the same level of learning eventually and any failure is attributed to failures of instruction and insufficient time, not to pupils’ abilities.

5. Tell…

Make effective use of teacher explanations.

The most effective way of making pupils think hard – and the best way of ensuring pupils focus their attention on the right things – is for the expert teacher to provide direct instruction of new knowledge and skills.

Direct instruction works best when: the teacher presents new information in small chunks; the teacher thinks aloud to make what they do implicitly explicit, to make the invisible visible; the teacher makes use of metaphors and analogies to contextualise new information, making abstract and alien concepts more concrete, tangible and relatable; the teacher makes use of dual coding – combining verbal instructions with visuals such as charts and graphics; and, once explanations have been given, the teacher affords pupils plenty of opportunity to practice and then provides systematic corrections and feedback guiding pupils’ practice and providing cues when required.

6. …and show

Make effective use of teacher modelling.

Once the teacher has introduced new curriculum content, they need to model excellence. In other words, they need to tell then show pupils what’s expected. Good models demonstrate what works as well as what doesn’t; good models provide pupils with a picture of the final product, an example of excellence, something to aim for and achieve, but they also provide examples of work that is not quite so good in order that pupils know what mistakes to avoid. Models should be deconstructed by the teacher in order to analyse their components – the individual pieces of the jigsaw that go to make up the whole picture. Then the models should be reconstructed to see how the product works as a whole.

7. Speak before you think

Promote classroom talk.

We need to provide plentiful opportunities for pupils to engage in classroom talk – including whole-class questioning – in order to make them think hard and deepen their understanding of key concepts.

Speaking and thinking are intricately linked because the process of speaking helps pupils to learn by articulating their thoughts and developing the concepts they use in order to better understand the world. Speaking and listening also level the playing field because most pupils are better able to articulate their thinking verbally than in writing, particularly in the early stages of their education. In short, classroom discussion is the best means of engaging all pupils and the best way of developing their knowledge and understanding.

The teaching of oracy skills should come first, followed by reading then writing, because – in order to develop pupils’ language capability and support their reading and writing – there first needs to be purposeful speaking and listening activities which provide a foundation for thinking and communication. For speaking and listening to be effective in making pupils think hard, there needs to be an agreed set of rules for classroom talk, speaking and listening skills must be explicitly taught, and the teacher needs to model good speaking and listening strategies at all times.

8. Question everything

Use closed questioning as a form of assessment.

There are two reasons for asking a question in class: either to provide information to the teacher about what to do next, or to cause pupils to think.

Using closed questions – such as multiple choice or hinge questions – as a form of assessment provides valuable information to the teacher about pupils’ learning and progress, about who has ‘got it’ and who has not, and about what needs reteaching, recapping or developing further. What’s more, closed questions used as a form of assessment reduce the marking load on teachers and make assessment ‘live’ and responsive. Further, closed questions used as a form of assessment turn assessment into a means of learning, they are assessment as learning rather than assessment for learning.

9. It’s good to talk

Use open questions to deepen pupils’ understanding.

Using open questions to deepen pupils’ understanding involves engaging in a form of dialogic teaching, which is to say asking big, philosophical questions which challenge pupils’ thinking and encourage discussion. Dialogic questions – such as Socratic questions – don’t just cause thinking, they promote critical thinking, too.

Teaching through the use of dialogic questions is: collective because teachers and pupils address learning tasks together, whether as a group or as a whole class; reciprocal because teachers and pupils listen to each other, share ideas and consider alternative points of view; supportive because pupils articulate their ideas without the fear of failure and help each other to reach a common understanding; cumulative because teachers and pupils build on their own and each others’ ideas and connect them into coherent lines of thinking and enquiry; and purposeful because teachers plan and steer classroom talk with specific educational goals in view.

Socratic questioning can be used to: Control a discussion; explore more complex ideas; uncover assumptions; analyse concepts and ideas; and distinguish between what pupils know and do not know.

10. Lighten the load

Organise learning materials to support cognitive load.

For example, we could make sure each slide of a PowerPoint presentation conveys just one message which is summarised in the title. We could ensure slides and other visuals are clean and concise with simple backgrounds, the avoidance of large blocks of text and pictures or animations which are there purely for presentational purposes. We could highlight important ‘take-away’ information, emphasising key points via coloured, bold or large fonts. And we could make sure we display information for long enough for pupils to absorb it and reduce potential distractions around the information.


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This is an edited extract from the book How to Learn which is available in paperback and ebook formats.  For more, click here.


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