Learning to ski and working memory

Last Christmas I went skiing for the first time. I was really looking forward to it but at the same time concerned at whether I would be able to do it. On the first day I had a lesson with an instructor. As he talked and went through the basics I listened attentively and thought I could put into action the directions he laid out, however things got tricky when I actually attempted to descend a small slope. The effort of putting four to five instructions into action whilst moving with people in close proximity proved too much at first and I often ended up getting myself into a muddle. In short there was too much for my working memory to handle because I was trying to perform a skill that I had not done before. My brother-in-law had skated and roller bladed before, which gave him an advantage because he already had some  knowledge of the mental procedures necessary to execute a similar skill in his long term memory.

It was a real eye opener for me regarding the learning process. The panic I felt at times trying to execute a particular skill by consciously combining different body movements must be very similar to the students who are presented with completely new problems or content in the classroom. The ski instructor was trying to teach two people who were starting from a different skill level and would be get a little frustrated when I couldn’t pick up quickly what my brother in law could. The latter had related knowledge already but I didn’t. It is thus in the classroom: students arrive with differing levels of knowledge and some will be able to tackle new problems and construct explanations more quickly than others because they have wider knowledge schema.

Working memory has been described as a bottleneck that can be easily overloaded, leading to confusion, frustration and possibly even demoralisation when attempting to learn something new. I certainly felt these things at different points on my first day of skiing and could have easily given up on occasions when I felt I would never grasp the basics. Clearly, sensitivity to overload is something teachers should take seriously and it would be wise to design lessons (or adapt them during execution) to ease the burden on working memory.

As you can see in this diagram from Daniel Willingham’s book ‘Why don’t students like school?’ working memory is where we process our environment (the sights, sounds, smells, etc. of the here and now), as well as the memories they bring. It works as our consciousness, something we are aware of at any given time of day.  Thinking takes place when information from the environment is combined  with long term memory in a new way. This takes place in working memory. However, as mentioned already, working memory is limited and can be easily overloaded. It has been stated that it can hold  7 (+ or -2) bits of information in the past, but some now say it may be as low as 4. This is of particular significance for students who are new to a school and goes someway to explain why some get overwhelmed in their first few weeks as they try to assimilate new routines and rules, as well as subject content. Equally, changes in a family situation or living arrangements may mean a child’s working memory is trying to make sense of other complicated things apart from the content of a lesson.

Initial encoding of information is held in short term working memory before being consolidated into a cohesive representation of knowledge in long term memory. Long term memory is said to be limitless, akin to a vast warehouse where knowledge can be stored, making connections with other things we have there. The more you know, the more possible connections you have for adding new knowledge. In ‘Make it Stick’, Roediger, McDaniel & Brown state that ‘Learning always builds on a store of prior knowledge. We interpret and remember events by building connections to what we already know.’

The strategies we employ must then aim to ease the passage of what we teach into long term memory, from where it can widen the knowledge schema the students already possess and make the learning of related material easier. In fact, Kirschner et al state ‘if nothing has been changed in the long-term memory, nothing has been learned.’ (2006, p77) Factual and procedural knowledge in long term memory can help us make sense of or solve new problems, and avoid working memory meltdown. For example, most of us could easily recall the answer to 8 x 5 because it is something that is stored in long term memory. It is also highly likely that we know the answer to 10 x 5. However, we probably don’t have automaticity when it comes to 18 x 5, but knowing the answer to 8 x 5 and 10 x 5 would help us get there. Equally, knowledge of one poet’s work could help us understand other poetry of a similar style and broad chronological awareness helps students put individual historical events into context. The times table example illustrates the importance of deliberate practice because this is a strategy that can smooth the transition of information in the working memory to become knowledge in the long term memory.  

Willingham states that ‘successful thinking relies on four factors: information from the environment, facts in long-term memory, procedures in long-term memory, and the amount of space in working memory. If one of these factors occurs inadequately, thinking will likely fail.’ There were many times during my skiing holiday when some or all of these things occurred inadequately, leaving me with a face full of snow. Eventually, I got somewhere and the key was deliberate practice. I’m a determined, stubborn and competitive sod who hates being rubbish at anything, particular when friends and family can do it. In fact my wife’s family were all competent skiers and at one particular low point I had to be picked up by my mother-in-law. To remedy this and save my pride I went up and down one particular hill all day. At first it was uncomfortable and I struggled to execute all the different elements of the skill whilst moving at what seemed like tremendous speed (it wasn’t really), but as the day wore it started to come more effortlessly. I could perform different actions all at once without consciously thinking about doing each one – these had been chunked into one action and a web of knowledge had been linked together to enable me to perform more fluently. ‘Chunking’ is a feature of all areas of life: words and phrases chunk meanings in conversations, a series of actions is chunked into ‘moves’ in sport, the same with the different elements of driving. Joe Kirby also points out:

Before we could read, letters on the page meant very little. We didn’t have the stores in our long-term memory to decode the symbols, and struggled with what is now automatic. Try memorising the ten symbols ‘%^&$£@&*!@’ as compared to ‘the boys ran’ for an example of the powerful chunking of your long-term memory.

But when will it be ‘chunked’? Practice is obviously key but it is also more likely to happen at the latter end of a learning cycle that includes explanation, modelling and scaffolding before the practice. David Didau writes about this cycle here. This was the process that enabled me to learn to ski in a reasonably short amount of time – I always wonder how long it would have taken me if I had gone for the discovery learning approach. In his TES article entitled ‘Classroom practice – Forget about assessing learning after lessons’, David Didau also on more useful advice citing one aspect of Graham Nuthall’s research which ‘suggests that pupils are unlikely to transfer concepts from working to long-term memory until they have encountered them on at least three occasions.’ Retrieval practice and distributed practice are two things that can be employed to achieve this. I would like to write another post specifically addresses ways to ease working memory load.

So, I learned to ski. However, there came a point when my first practice slope became too easy; I had reached the bottom end of my zone of proximal development. New challenges were needed to create the ‘desirable difficulties’ Robert Bjork states are important to bring about further learning. And difficulties they most certainly brought as I had to execute the very same combination of skills with much less to time to think and at greater speeds. Yet again, I was eating snow.

Here’s Peter Doolittle talking about working memory in his Ted Talk

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