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Practice English Speaking&Listening with: Joni Holmes - Working memory and classroom learning

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so let's begin by thinking about what is

working memory well working memory is

one of many different memory systems

that we have and in fact when we're

talking about working memory we're

actually talking about holding onto

information just for a few seconds at a

time it refers to the information that

you can hold in mind in the here and now

when information goes into working

memory and you're trying to remember it

you will only hold onto it for a few

seconds unless you do something to try

and help yourself to remember it so a

nice example of when you use your

working memory is when somebody gives

you for example a postcode so if

somebody said to you well my postcode is

C b27 EF you would use your working

memory to try to remember that postcode

and unless you've started to rehearse it

and say it to yourself you would forget

that information almost immediately and

that's because working memory only holds

onto information for a few seconds

unless we do something to keep it active

and to hold on to it so it's our working

memory that allows us to holding to hold

on to information in the here-and-now

but it's not just about holding on to

and remembering information it's about

being able to process and use that

information in the course of any ongoing

mental activity that you're engaged in

so we use working memory a bit like a

mental workspace we use it in many

different aspects of our everyday lives

and everyday functioning so for example

if you're following directions if

somebody says to you or to find the

lecture theatre you want to go down this

corridor take the second right and it's

on the third left your working memory

would kick into action and help you to

rehearse and remember those directions

and at the same time you would be

processing the information as you follow

the directions to get your destination

so you're processing and storing

information simultaneously you're using

this mental workspace we also know we

use Matar working memory in the course

of carrying out mental arithmetic so the

process of for example adding two

numbers together you're using working

memory to retain the problem

information you're processing that

information to work out the answer maybe

on the way you're storing some interim

totals all the time you're using working

memory processing and storing

information in the here-and-now and we

also use working memory when we're

reading so working memory in a enables

us to remember the words that we're

reading and to be able to integrate them

to form a sentence that we can

comprehend and understand and in this

way working memory also interacts with

long-term memory to aid comprehension

and I'll come back to speak a little

more about the specific role of working

memory in learning a bit later on now

what we know about working memory is

that it has a limited capacity so what

this means is that there is actually a

finite amount of information that we can

hold in mind at any given time and of

course that makes sense we couldn't hold

on to every single thing that we hear

all the time we typically would say that

working memory capacity is limited in

terms of time a few seconds unless we

start rehearsing the information to keep

it active all we would say would be

limited in terms of the number of items

that we can remember so if somebody was

to give you their postcode that has

seven items in it so the letters and

numbers there are seven of them to

remember that's the average capacity for

an adult we can all remember about seven

items in order before we start to forget

them but what we know is that working

memory capacity varies greatly between

individuals so some people in the room

here will have much larger working

memory capacities and be able to

remember more information than others

and some will have smaller working

memory capacities and it will be the

children who have small working memory

capacities who I'll be focusing on in

today's talk when we lose information

from working memory because it's only

held there in a very fragile and

temporary state often when we lose

information we forget information from

working memory it results in

catastrophic loss so that means it's

incredibly difficult to reinstate or

recall something that has gone from

working memory now there are a number of

different theoretical models of working

memory and I don't want to spend

long getting into this but it is quite

important when we think about the

different roles that working memory

plays in supporting different types of

learning so up here I've just got a very

simple depiction of working memory so

working memory and short-term memory are

terms that are used interchangeably in a

very popular working memory model that

we tend to work within in Europe we

consider that to be a verbal short-term

memory system now this part of working

memory allows you to recall and remember

anything that you've either heard or

that you've written seen written down so

anything that's verbal you can take it

into mind and you can repeat it back

exactly as you heard it or as you read

it we have a similar system for

nonverbal information which we call the

video spatial short-term memory some

people call it the visuospatial

sketchpad so these two systems are about

retaining information and recalling it

exactly as you heard it or as you saw it

and you might use your visual spatial

system for trying to remember for

example of roots on a map and then we

have our working memory systems so this

is the component of working memory which

is like the control center so it allows

us to use information that's stored

either in verbal or visual spatial short

term memory and then we can use it in

some way to process that information and

then this system also interacts with

long-term memory so you can use

information held in mind now with

information stored in your long-term

memory so this is just one very simple

depiction of working memory when I talk

about working memory I'm referring to

how it interacts with the short-term

memory systems and also into long-term

memory as well so the capacity of

working memory the amount of information

that you can hold in mind it increases

with age so when we're born we have very

very small working memory capacities and

we see dramatic increases particularly

across the primary school years and in

fact what we see is that even within an

age group there are huge individual

differences and variations in working

memory abilities so on this graph here

we've got age along the bottom so

children aged 5 through to 15 and here

we've got scores on

working memory test now this line here

shows you the average performance for

children of particular ages and what you

can hopefully see is that this line is

increasing over time so as children get

older their working memory capacity is

developing and increasing meaning they

can remember more information but you

can see here that these lines are

actually showing you the spread of

performance for each particular age so

in a classroom you could be working with

a group of children aged eight and their

puffs typical performance would be

around here but within that same

classroom you're going to have children

whose working memory capacities are

actually equivalent to children who are

age 13 so they're I were to remember

much more information than many of the

other children in the class and you'll

also have children whose performance is

down here so these children will

actually be performing at the level of a

typical five-year-old so what you might

find is that the average eight-year-old

can remember four or five things at a

time but that child who's got poor

working memory the child who's sitting

at the bottom of the graph here they'll

have a working memory capacity that

means that they can only remember one or

two things at any particular time so if

we think about the demands of litter in

the classroom of having to remember

information if you're the child who's at

the bottom here who's performing on

average three years below the other

children you're able to remember far

less information than the other children

in the classroom hopefully you can

already start to think about the kinds

of challenges that you might face so

I'll be focusing on the children here

who have working memory problems but

what we also know is that we see

deficits in working memory so we see

that children who have small working

memory capacities are highly represented

when we look at different developmental

groups so if we're working with children

with ADHD what we'll see is they're

often many children who have attention

deficit disorder will also have poor

working memory

we know that children who've got reading

difficulties specific language

impairment dyslexia and Down syndrome

are really characterized by having

severe problems in verbal working

memory whereas children who've got

mathematical problems and who have

Williams syndrome they tend to be

characterized by having more severe

deficits in nonverbal or visual spatial

aspects of working memory so what we can

see is that working memory problems are

common we know that there are in every

class of 30 children they will on

average be 3 or 4 children who have

working memory difficulties we also know

that working memory problems are a

common feature of many different

developmental disorders that impact on

learning so this really brings me to

thinking about well why is it that there

is a close link between working memory

and learning why do we see that working

memory for example is linked to school

performance well over many years we've

carried out lots of different studies

where we've looked at the association

between performance on working memory

assessments and children's standardized

academic attainment here in the UK and

I'm just going to show you a snapshot of

some studies where we've seen that

working memory ability is linked to

children's performance and their

academic performance when they first

start school and that we can use it to

predict how well they're going to do as

they progress through primary and

secondary school so here's an example of

a study that we carried out over 10

years ago now in this particular study

we were working up in the northeast of

England in Durham and there they had

baseline assessments so these are

assessments were given to children when

they first started in reception class

when there were four or five years old

and they asked the teachers to rate the

children's ability as they started

school on measures of reading writing

and mathematics we went into the schools

and we assessed children's performance

on a range of working memory assessments

and what we saw was a very strong

association between performance on these

assessments and the children's working

memory abilities we also found that

performance on these working memory

tests when the children started school

so when they started in reception they

were excellent predictors of English and

maths performance at the end of Key

Stage 1 so in other words you could use

these working memory assessments as a

child started school to predict where

likely to end up when they do their

standardized assessments two years later

so we can use working memory tasks or

tests as a prospective indicator of

academic performance we've seen a very

similar pattern at different ages so

here we've got data from 11-year olds so

in the UK this is the final year of

primary school and here we actually

categorize children based on their Key

Stage two performance according to

whether they were below national

standards at the average level expected

for their age or whether they were above

average and we categorized them into

these three groups based on their

English attainment and we also did the

same based on their mass attainment and

we measured their performance on working

memory tasks now the assessments that we

use are standardized working memory

tests so what this means is that typical

performance should be at a hundred so

it's a bit like an IQ test anything of

eighty five or below would suggest that

there is a working memory impairment or

a deficit in working memory meaning the

child is unable to hold on to as much

information at any given time as the

other children in their class so

hopefully what you can see quite clearly

on the graph here is that children whose

English attainment levels were below

national expected levels they had poor

working memory those whose English

performance was where we would expect

relative to national levels their

working memory abilities were bang-on

where we would predict for their age and

those who were above average in English

were also above average in terms of

working memory we saw exactly the same

pattern with mathematics but here the

deficit in working memory was more

pronounced in those who were scoring

below nationally expected levels for


we've also replicated this finding at

Key Stage three so here we were looking

at children's performance in English

maths and in science and we saw the same

strong links so there is children who

struggled in terms of English maths or

science seemed to have working memory

problems so this data tends to be

pointing toward a strong association

between working memory and learning so

why is it that working memory might be

important for learning

how do we use this memory system to

support the learning that goes on or

supports the processes enable us to

learn well they've been many different

studies in this area and one of the key

studies looking at working memory and

reading comprehension suggests that

within the working memory system we use

the verbal short-term memory storage

system or the phonological loop along

with the attentional executive control

demands of working memory that enable us

to complete reading comprehension so

what we tend to do is use the verbal

short-term memory system to hold on to

the words and sentences that we're

reading and then we use our working

memory to process those words to form

them into meaningful sentences and then

working memory will interact with

long-term memory and with our long-term

knowledge to enable us to comprehend the

text that we're reading so when we're

engaging in reading it's really the

verbal aspects of short-term memory and

working memory that work in tandem to

enable us to hold on to information

integrate information across sentences

and across paragraphs so that we can

build up a representation and

comprehension of what we're engaged with

in terms of reading material when we

think about working memory and maths

what we see is actually that it's the

visio spatial or the nonverbal aspects

of working memory that are important so

if you think about engaging in maths

although you might remember the problem

information verbally there is some kind

of mental or visual representation that

you generally have to have to be able to

carry out any kind of mental arithmetic

or mathematical operation and in fact

what studies have shown is that we tend

to use our visual spatial short term

memory system when we're trying to solve

math problems and again this interacts

with our processing system in working

memory and it interacts with long term

memory to enable us to actually retrieve

information such as arithmetic facts

that we have stored in long-term memory

so reading relies predominantly on

verbal aspects of working memory maths

more on the nonverbal aspects of working

memory when we think about language

learning what we can see is that the

system that is

most important both the first and native

language learning as well as for second

and third language learning is the

verbal short-term memory or phonological

loop system and the reason that this

part of working memory is so important

is that it is the system that allows us

to maintain an internal representation

of a new sound or a new word so whenever

we're starting to learn any language

when we hear that unfamiliar sound the

unfamiliar word the information is

processed and it's immediately stored in

verbal short-term memory and then what

will happen is the verbal short-term

memory system will kick in to enable you

to rehearse that information and then

you can actually start to integrate it

into long-term memory so it becomes a

word that you know and understand and it

would do that by passing through the

working memory system here so what we

know is that children for example who

have follow jakku loop or verbal

short-term memory problems will

typically belay delayed in terms of

language learning and language

development okay so we know that working

memory is related to learning and in

many studies that we've carried out we

started to say well we see these strong

associations between working memory and

learning and in delivering lots of talks

to educational practitioners and

teachers we were often then asked well

how am I going to spot a child who's got

poor working memory when I'm in the

classroom I don't have ready access to

the kinds of tests that you use so what

things will I be looking for to identify

this child with problems so we carried

out a number of studies where we went

into schools and we were observing

children who had poor working memory and

in these studies we had people who

didn't know which children had working

memory problems and which children

didn't have working memory problems and

we asked them to actually to go in

observe two different groups of children

and we got all the ratings back and all

the observations back and we collated it

together and we actually identified some

key characteristics of children who had

working memory problems so

unsurprisingly one of the hallmark

features of children who have working

memory difficulties is typically that

they are struggling at school in fact

when we worked with over 300 children

with working

problems we've seen that more than 80%

are typically struggling in both reading

and in maths in terms of their social

integration we see that children with

working memory problems tend to be quite

reserved when they're in a group but

they do tend to have a small number of

friends so they're not completely

socially isolated here I've got a

description of a child called Ross he

was a six year old with working memory

problems and here's some of the key

characteristics associated with the

social profile of a child with poor

working memory are really highlighted

quite well so Ross was reserved in quiet

he tended not to volunteer responses and

he rarely answered direct questions

particularly in the whole class

situation but if you imagine that poor

Ross has got a very poor working memory

he can really only remember one or two

things at a time if a teachers asking a

question to the whole class it's

incredibly unlikely that Ross will be

the child to put his hand up to give you

an answer and it's not because he

doesn't understand it just may well be

that he's forgotten the question that

you've asked him we also see here that

Ross becomes more vocal sometimes when

he's working in a small group but he

isn't necessarily discussing the task at

hand and this really strikes with

another key feature of children with

poor working memory so what we often see

is that their behavior will be quite off

to ask they're quite easily distracted

and again this comes down to them

forgetting what they're meant to be

doing so children with poor working

memory will quite easily forget the

goals of a learning activity they'll

forget what they've been asked to do so

then their behavior becomes highly

distractible and they start to behave in

a way that's off task we also see that

children with poor working memory find

it incredibly difficult to follow

multi-step instructions so as we all

know in the learning environment

typically children will be given

multiple steps of an activity to carry

out or there'll be multiple steps of a

classroom management instruction and

what we know is that children with

working memory problems will typically

do either the first thing on the list or

the last thing on the list and this is

exemplified quite nicely here by a small

child called John so the teacher asked

him to put his sheets on the green table

Eero cards in the packet put his pencil

away and come and sit on the carpet so

that instruction sequence contained four

things to remember when we observe John

in the classroom what we see is that he

did the very first thing he moved his

sheets as soon as he was requested to do

but he failed to do anything else and

when he realized that the rest of the

class was sat on the carpet he joined

them but he missed out the intermediate

steps of that instruction sequence so

what you can see here is that the memory

demands the working memory demands of

this instruction sequence were just too

high there were too many things for him

to remember and what you might find in

the classroom is that John did the first

thing and then he might have wandered

around aimlessly or he might have

started to distract other children

because he didn't really know what he

was meant to be doing he had forgotten

and then when he saw what everybody else

was doing he simply joined in at the end

we also see there are particular

classroom activities that are really

challenging for children with working

memory difficulties and hopefully if

I've described working memory well

enough to you you'll understand that any

problem that involves processing and

storing information at the same time is

going to be really challenging so here

we've got an example of such an activity

which is trying to identify the missing

numbers in a number sequence so here the

numbers have written on the board

there's a number sequence there were

gaps in the sequence and the child with

poor working memory really struggled to

identify what the missing numbers were

if you think about the working memory

demands of this activity having to

remember the numbers that are there

having to work out what the gaps are

between the numbers so you know how the

number sequence is progressing and

changing then having to retain that


think about your numbers and your

long-term number knowledge to draw out

the answer there's a lot of information

you're holding on to the number sequence

where the gaps are how the numbers are

progressing and you're having to process

what you know about numbers from long

term memory to be able to work out the

answer so activities like this that

might seem relatively trivial because

there is a lot of information presented

for the child actually the working

memory demands can be surprisingly high

this is also exemplified when you look

at children's written

so children with working memory problems

find it particularly difficult to keep

track of their place in written work so

here the child had to copy down the date

and the title of the piece of work from

the board so all the information they

had to remember was written in front of

them but the working memory demands of

this activity came in reading the

information on the board

tracking down to the page engaging in

the laborious process of trying to write

so remembering all the rules of spelling

and grammar and then tracking back up to

the board to see what the next letter or

the next word is so that keeping track

of their place on top of doing the

actual writing produces incredibly high

working memory demands so what you can

see here is at this child Nathan he was

asked to write down the date Monday the

11th of November and underneath the

title which was the market he lost his

place when he was going backwards and

forwards between the board and his

written work and he ended up writing

Moana market so he probably got the M in

the Oh from Monday he knew it was an N

next but he tracked back up to this N in

November so he ended up with a capital

not sure quite where he got the e from

but he must have thought it was this one

and then he wrote down the word market

so what you might see is that children

with poor working memory have real

problems trying to retain information

from one piece of paper to another or

from the board to the written page

because the attempt to keep track of

where they are can place high demands on

the working memory system we also see

that children with poor working memory

tend to present in the classroom as

though they have short attention spans

and as though they're highly

distractible so when we have in the past

spoken to teachers and said well how

does this child come across to you the

kinds of things that we often hear are

well he's in a world of his own he

doesn't listen to a word I say she's

always daydreaming with him it's in one

ear and out the other and that's kind of

true it goes into working memory and

straight out again the child forgets

what you've said it isn't necessary they

haven't been paying attention it's that

they seem to have forgotten the

information so what we know is that

children with poor working memory might

actually present as though

children who are a bit like children

with ADHD and in fact you might think

that when you read this about Adam so he

struggled to maintain attention

particularly during the whole class

situation when the pupils were joined

together on the carpet he was always

told to come and sit directly in front

of the teacher he was prompted to sit

correctly and pay attention because he

was fidgeting all the time and he was

also looking around the classroom and

distracting other children who were near

him so you can see his fidgety he's not

paying attention he's distracting other

children he might present as though he's

someone who has attention deficit

hyperactivity disorder well in fact we

carried out a number of studies to

investigate this and what we saw

actually on the whole was that children

who have ports are children who have

poor working memory they do have high

levels of inattention so they find it

hard to stay on task they find it hard

to stay focused

and that's very similar to children with

attention deficit hyperactivity disorder

but in fact what we find is that when

you compare the behavioral profiles of

those with poor working memory and those

with ADHD the children with ADHD are far

more hyperactive and oppositional so

they have many more outward signs of

disruptive behavior and of hyperactive

behavior however we do see that they

both have impairments in working memory

and inattention so there are some

similarities between the groups and some

differences so why is it that children

with poor working memory struggle with

learning well what we suspect is that

the classroom environment places many

heavy demands on a child's working

memory system we know that learning is

an incremental process that happens step

by step so what will typically happen is

in a particular lesson you'll set some

activities for the child to complete and

you hope that these activities will help

them to acquire knowledge relative to

the subject you're teaching and we

actually rely on children completing

those learning activities successfully

to be able to acquire the knowledge in

one lesson that might then be built on

in a subsequent lesson so you have a

series of activities that over time

enable a child to build up their


now what we know about children with

poor working memory is that they really

struggle with each of these learning

tasks in the classroom often because the

working memory demands are just too high

there's too much information to remember

so what happens is they forget that

information they abandon the tasks that

you set them or they don't complete them

successfully and what this means is that

over time they experience frequent loss

learning opportunities and they start to

fall further and further behind and over

time this will manifest a slow

educational progress so what can you do

to help these children well there are

two different approaches that have been

used quite widely one of them relies on

actually providing classroom support so

in other words in trying to think about

restructuring the environment around the

child to reduce the working memory

demands to enable them to complete more

learning tasks and the second approach

comes down to working memory training so

this approach involves trying to

directly train and improve a child's

working memory capacity so what I'm

going to do is just spend a bit of time

talking about the two different

approaches and try and bring you up to

speed with what the literature is

showing us to date so I'll start with

the classroom based approach so this

really evolved in about 2003 and 2004

and we were doing lots of work with

children who had working memory

difficulties and teachers were asking us

well how could you actually help these

children in the classroom we know why

they're struggling we know the working

memory demands of the classroom are

often too high at the time we thought

well we know you can't train working

memory directly so let's think about

coming up with an intervention that

enables teachers to reduce the working

memory demands of the learning

activities that they're setting and I

always feel when I start to talk about

this intervention that I should really

emphasize that this intervention

approach is not rocket science it builds

on elements of good teaching practice

but the real key thing here is to think

about how you would deliver a lesson to

a child who can only remember two things

at a time and if you think about that

and apply the principles and restructure

learning activities for that particular

child then you in

their chances of success so the

intervention itself it was all about

reducing working memory overload and

about applying principles of good

teaching practice specifically to

children who have working memory

problems so we designed an intervention

and we trialed it in different schools

up in the northeast of England so we had

a set of schools who carried out this

intervention we had a set of schools in

which the teachers were providing more

one-on-one direct supervision time with

the children with working memory

difficulties and we had another set of

schools who had no intervention so it

was a three armed intervention trial for

the schools who were carrying out the

working memory intervention we talked

teachers how to be aware of the signs of

working memory failure so really telling

them about the characteristics of

children with poor working memory that

I've described to you today we suggested

they monitor the child to make sure that

these warning signs of working memory

problems are present in different

subjects maybe with different people to

make sure that it wasn't anything

subject specific and then to think about

the activities they were going to set

for the lesson and to apply some simple

principles so when you're designing your

lesson thinking about the lesson plan

just think about trying to reduce how

much information the child's got to

remember on their own so there are ways

of doing this you can have the key bits

of information written down on a piece

of paper next to the child with working

memory problems you might have the key

steps of an activity listed on a board

related to this try to reduce the

difficulty of the processing so if it is

a multi-step tasks break it down for the

child who's got poor working memory

maybe start by giving them the whole

class all of the instructions all of the

steps of this complex activity but for

the child with poor working memory maybe

deliver the instructions one bit at a

time or get them to sit next to somebody

who can help them through the different

steps of the activity so just thinking

of ways of making it less complex less

information to process and store we also

encourage teachers to create a classroom

environment in which they were happy to

represent information

so creating and fostering an environment

where it was okay for the child to put

their hand up for the tenth time and say

oh I forgot on the next step and that's

quite challenging and quite difficult

but it's something that then will foster

an environment where a child can tell

you if they've forgotten rather than

just sitting there and not finishing the

task we encouraged them to use memory

aids both the children and the teachers

but there was a caveat here if you're

using a memory aid in putting something

on the desk near the child to help them

in the lesson make sure you don't put

too many things on the desk because that

in itself will create a memory demand of

what thing have I got to use next so

using things that are really relevant

and salient to the activity and then the

final thing was really to help the child

to use strategies so firstly making a

child aware that they have a problem

remembering more than one or two things

and working with them to think about how

they might improve that ability what

might they do to help themselves and so

we found that a lot of children would

like to have some kind of device to

record what the teacher was saying and

they could play it back at a pace that

suited them and all the information was

then stored there so they didn't have to

rely on working memory other children

used personal dictionaries for words

that were particularly hard to spell to

reduce the processing needs of spelling

to help them focus on the task at hand

so we got schools to carry out this

intervention across one academic year

and what we found is that the teachers

said it was a relatively easy

intervention to implement that in fact

they could use this intervention

alongside existing curriculum activities

they also found it was beneficial to

realize the child was struggling due to

forgetting rather than not paying

attention and being deliberately

disobedient and they also found that the

children were much more successful and

had improved self-esteem because they

were completing more of the activities

in the classroom so it created a better

sense of achievement and self-esteem for

these children who were struggling and

we found that we monitored the fidelity

so how often did the teachers adhere to


intervention and we found that that

fidelity rating was actually highly

related to increased success across the

academic year in reading and maths for

the children who are in this

intervention so if you want to know more

about this we have published a paper and

that describes the outcomes of the trial

and we have got a book as well and in

this book that's written by sue gather

call it describes some very nice

concrete examples of how to implement

this intervention but if you don't want

to pay for it we do have on our calm

website which I'll put up at the end a

free downloadable PDF which you can

print out yourselves and use to think

about the kinds of activities that

you're running in the classroom and how

you might restructure them so that is

freely available on our website so I'll

make sure you can access that at the end

okay so let's think about the

alternative approach so this one

involves changing the environment around

the child the other approach involves

trying to improve children's working

memory directly so how many of you in

the room have heard of working memory

training or cogmed or any other kind of

intervention okay a few of you that

doesn't surprise me

okay so these these kinds of

interventions came around about in about

2002 2003 and the idea is that you get

children to practice on working memory

tasks but they're on a computer and

they're embedded within a game

environment now historically people had

tried to Train working memory so back in

1982 there was a really famous study

where they were trying to improve

somebody's digit span so they were

trying to train this person to remember

more than seven items or seven digits

without forgetting them and they

actually managed over the course of a

couple of months to train this person to

remember over a hundred digits in order

and then they got him to try and

remember letters and his performance or

remembering letters wasn't improved so

you could remember more and more digits

because he trained on remembering a

series of digits but it didn't transfer

to being able to recall more letters and

when they asked him how he was

performing the number tasks he said well

I wasn't remembering a hundred

I'm actually a marathon runner so i

chunked that information into marathon

running times so I was just remembering

a smaller series of running times and

combining those numbers into groups to

make it easy to remember so he was using

a strategy and he couldn't transfer that

strategy to be able to remember letters

so on the basis of this for many years

we always believed you couldn't train

working memory although if you did you

get better on what you practiced but

there'll be no transfer to any other

kind of activity or task so when these

studies came out in 2002 2003 they were

promising the world they were saying

that you know you get children to train

on a working memory task so for example

here they have to remember a set of

numbers and click them in backward order

on the keypad or you'd have these

asteroids floating around in space

lighting up one at a time the child

clicks on them in the order in which

they lit up and then they blow up at the

end so if you get a child to train on

these give them a training of about 25

sessions over six to eight weeks to get

them to train for about 15 hours and

what you'll see is improvements in

working memory and for children with

ADHD you'll see that their levels of

inattentive behavior will reduce they'll

be better able to pay attention and they

said the key to these tasks was that

they're adaptive so that means that for

example if a child is working on a task

where they have to remember two or three

items as they get better they suddenly

have to remember four items five items

six items and so on however when they

start to fail the tasks adapt back down

again so they're always pushing the

child to work at their maximum capacity

but they're adapting back down again so

the child doesn't feel disheartened or

disillusioned so there were some really

promising results with the early studies

and in fact in some of our own studies

we used a program like cogmed and we

found that after six months of training

you did get a small improvement in some

children's maths performance so these

early studies were really promising we

thought well maybe is that you can train

working memory this way however we're

now kind of ten years on from these

early studies and in fact what we found

when we use these very kind of rigid and

rigorous randomized control trials to

assess whether or

these are beneficial interventions in

fact what we see is exactly what those

early studies showed you see

improvements on the train on the tasks

on which children train and also on very

similar tasks but you don't see

improvements in terms of everyday

abilities so here this is some data from

a large randomized control trial that we

ran in this particular study we had

children who were assigned to the

adaptive training group so they were

training on those computerised tasks

that were getting increasingly difficult

we had children assigned to a placebo

group so their training did not get more

difficult it was just a low dose

throughout the six to eight weeks and

then we had a group of children who had

no intervention at all and we assessed

these children before and after their

training and a year later on a whole

range of working memory tasks and on 17

different measures of learning and

classroom performance so here we've got

gains on the untrained working memory

tasks so these were not tasks they

trained on but they were similar to the

tasks they trained on and the bigger the

bar the greater the improvement so

hopefully you can see that for verbal

short-term memory the training gains

were relatively similar across the three

groups there were no differences so

really if you trained or had no

intervention there's no difference to

your scores on that particular test

however we did see the adaptive training

made you better than the other groups in

terms of visual spacial short-term

memory and both verbal and visual

spatial working memory so there were

improvements on working memory tasks

that were not trained however there were

no improvements on any of the other

measures that we took so we took a whole

range of measures of spelling of reading

of maths of children's ability to pay

attention in the class to follow teacher

instructions there were no improvements

either immediately after the training or

a year later suggesting that the effects

of training are actually very very

limited we've got some colleagues who've

been very interested in looking at

whether or not training actually does

anything to the brain I've got a

colleague Duncan a store who carried out

a similar study to the one I've just

described to you but here he was looking

connections between different parts of

the brain and what he found in fact was

that as the children's memory scores

improved there were increased signs of

connections between the frontal parts of

the brain that are associated with

paying attention and with the visual

parts of the brain that are associated

with where you might direct your visual

attention so it suggests that you do get

better on working memory tasks there

might be some changes in the brain so

you might have faster connections

between parts of the brain following

training but actually this doesn't

really mean anything unless you get

real-world benefits and in fact what

we've seen is that there are no reliable

benefits following training for reading

for maths for attentional symptoms of

ADHD or for IQ so there might be

something happening but it's very very

specific to the kinds of things children

trained on so we could give up on

training or together we might think well

it might be doing something but it's

probably just making you better at what

you're practicing on all we could use

training to start saying well maybe it's

enabling children for example to develop

strategies to be able to remember more

information but what we need to do is

take training a bit further rather than

just carrying out training alone so at

the moment children just sit on a

computer for six to eight weeks you know

an hour a day doing their training then

they go back to the classroom we think

they're not transferring anything

they're doing in training back to that

classroom environment and in fact what

we might need to do is firstly make the

training activities themselves more

relevant to classroom learning so train

children how to use and expand their

working memory in classroom based

activities and we might also need to

firstly make them aware of the kinds of

strategies they might be developing to

remember more information and then get

them to practice applying those in

different situations back in the

classroom okay so I've got about 10

minutes left and what I've been doing so

far is really focusing on working memory

because that has been the focus of most

of my research but I think what we need

to do is be really aware that there are

many other cognitive abilities that are

important for learning

so I'm going to take the last sort of

5-10 minutes tell you a bit about the

more recent research that we've been

carrying out at the Center for attention

learning and memory which is based here

in Cambridge so we're really interested

quite broadly in understanding why some

children struggle to learn and my

particular focus has been on trying to

understand how working memory impacts on

learning why working memory constrains

children's ability to learn but like

most people unlike most of the research

in this area we've been working with

very very specific groups so for example

many studies will work with a particular

group of children with a specific

diagnosis so for example children with

ADHD or children with working memory

problems although go out into the

clinical or community settings so going

to schools and selecting children with

really specific profiles or problems so

for example selecting children with

reading difficulties who don't have

maths problems so you end up with a very

rarified specialized group or studies

focus on just one particular goal

cognitive domains such as working memory

which is very much what I've done in my

research up to this point and although

these studies have taught us some

important things about why children

might struggle to learn there are some

limitations the first is that they

assume that all the children in a

particular diagnostic group are the same

as one another so the assumption is for

example children we've got ADHD they've

been given that diagnostic label the

assumption is well every child with ADHD

will have the same kinds of behavior

problems and cognitive problems and of

course what we know is that that isn't

true you can have two children with ADHD

who can be entirely different to one


can have very different symptoms you can

have the one child who's more driven

more kind of acts as if they driven by a

motor is hyperactive

on the go all the time all you might

have the child with ADHD who's far more

de dreamy inattentive looking out of the

window so the assumption of many of the

previous studies is that actually

children with the disorder all have the

same symptoms but we know that's not

true in reality it also makes the


if you're comparing groups for example

children with ADHD compared to children

with dyslexia

it makes the assumptions that those two

groups are quite distinct and there is

something fundamentally different

between those groups and again of course

we know that's not true so you might

have children with ADHD who are highly

inattentive and who struggle to read in

the same way you'll have children with

dyslexia who are struggling to read and

are highly inattentive so the assumption

that these groups are separate is

somewhat misleading and we know actually

if we really want to fundamentally try

and understand why children struggle to

learn we probably need to move away from

just studying specific groups and that's

what we tried to do through the center

for attention learning and memory so

we've tried to understand what causes

learning problems in the common

struggling learner in the classroom this

childhood often has complex learning

needs they often have co-occurring

symptoms and difficulties so we opened

the center for attention learning and

memory which has the really nice acronym

of calm if you come in is anything but

calm we open the clinic in September

2014 and we have assessed 750 children

so far so we've recruited the children

from educational and health

practitioners so we're asking speech and

language therapists cenk OHS educational

psychologist clinical psychologists and

psychiatrists to refer to us any child

who has a difficulty with attention with

learning or with memory and we don't

care whether they've got a diagnosis or

not if they have fine if they've got

more than one diagnosis fine if they're

just struggling and you can see they're

struggling but they don't have a

diagnosis then they can still come to

the clinic and what we do is we assess

cognition so we assess working memory

and lots of other cognitive skills we

assess learning we put the children in

the MRI scanner which we fortunately

have at the bottom of the garden most

people have sheds we have MRI scanner

and we also take a saliva sample so that

we can look at the genetic links with

outcomes as well and the big questions

we're asking our what dimensions of

cognition learning behavior and brain

structure distinguished these children

so in other words if you look at

children who've got different kinds of

learning profiles how do their cognitive

abilities compare how does their brain

structure differ and how do they differ

genetically it's a really big ambitious

project just to give you an idea of the

kinds of things that we're doing so the

assessments with the children take

between four and five hours they come

into the clinic we get them to complete

a whole range of cognitive tasks looking

at attention memory executive functions

phonological processing processing speed

nonverbal reasoning and working memory

we get their parents to complete a

number of behavior ratings so we look at

how they use their executive functions

in everyday life we have ratings of ADHD

like symptoms

we have ratings of communication skills

and we also get ratings from both

parents and children about mental health

so we get ratings of anxiety and

depression in terms of the brain we

actually bring the children in for what

we would call a structural brain scan so

they're asked to lie in the brain

scanner with their eyes closed and we

they spend about 30 minutes in total and

we have a different set of scans that we

take and this allows us to see gray

matter and white matter but it also

allows us to look at connectivity in the

brain so how well connected are

different areas of the brain and then as

I say we get the children to spit in a

pot at the end of the assessment which

they will really enjoy and that allows

us to then send that off to Adam Brooks

and we store the information there and

hopefully over time we'll be able to

look at genetic links to learning so we

are about I've know halfway through

running the clinic now we're going to go

up to about a thousand children in total

what we've started to see is that

children's phonological abilities are

highly related to language and literacy

learning so that's probably not too

surprising but it's interesting this has

been shown in typical samples here we've

got a really mixed group of children who

are struggling to learn and you see

these very strong links here we see that

children's executive working memory and

spatial abilities are highly linked to


learning outcomes and they're also very

predictive of children having problems

paying attention so executive working

memory problems might be expressed as

inattentive behavior in the classroom

and as having specific problems with

maths we've also started to identify

this very strong link between having

high levels of hyperactivity so not

being able to sit still being fidgety

alongside social pragmatic communication

problems so when I'm talking about

pragmatic communication problems it's

really about how well a child is able to

apply social rules in communication so

an example of when you use your

pragmatic communication skills might be

when you're at this checkout in a

supermarket and the sales assistant says

to you or how are you today you'll use

your social rules say I'm fine thank you

and then you carry on because you know

in that situation they don't really want

to know how you are that day they don't

care if you had a sleepless night you

need coffee your heart you know so it's

about understanding the social rules so

I'm sitting here now my pragmatic

communication skills are telling me

you're all very hot it's the end of the

day you want me to wrap up which is what

I'll do okay so bringing everything

together hopefully today I've been able

to talk to you a bit about how poor

working memory might put a child at risk

of falling behind at school our research

has shown us that classroom management

can be very effective if you apply the

principles so if you try to reduce

working memory demands we know that

intensive training is not very effective

as it stands but we might be able to

take it further and to use it as a tool

with which to teach children or make

them aware of the kinds of strategies

they could use to try to remember more

information and hopefully just in the

last bit that I've told you about the

clinic hopefully I started to emphasize

that we do need to start thinking about

other cognitive abilities we also need

to give some serious thought to what

diagnostic labels mean so when we look

at these kind of children we've seen in

the calm clinic we see profiles of

learning problems that are completely

unrelated to the diagnosis the child has

so here we starting to think well do

we need to step back and consider more

what's going on at the cognitive level

to be able to design effective

interventions so thank you very much to

listen for listening to me here's my

email address and there's more

information about the calm clinic at

this website and on there there is a tab

for resources where you'll be able to

download that booklet about how to help

children with working memory problems in

the classroom so thank you very much I'm

very happy to take questions




The Description of Joni Holmes - Working memory and classroom learning