The educational system can sometimes be tough on us teachers. We’ve got certain concepts to plant in our students in a set amount of time-we can only hope that what we plant will flourish. Students themselves, of course, come in all shapes and sizes, both physically and intellectually. Some are quicker, some slower to grasp what we’re presenting.
Willy-nilly, we tend to reward the quicker students-the ones with ready answers in class, or whose keen focus allows them to speedily intuit key ideas from the textbook.
But just who are these quicker students? Quite often, they are students with preternaturally strong working memories. And this, perhaps surprisingly, can pose a problem.
Working memory is a sort of temporary mental workspace that can hold, on average, four chunks of information in four slots. So, for example, you might remember the four digits of your hotel room number. Or four first names from the group of people you’ve just met.
If you’ve practiced and created bigger chunks, you might hold four larger numbers in your mental slots. Or parts of a familiar equation, or a musical passage, or a sentence in a new language.
People with strong working memories have the metaphorical equivalent of a steel trap. “Steel trap” types can load several ideas into mind, holding those ideas in the slots of their working memory as they cogitate-perhaps rapidly rearranging words in a sentence so they come out properly when translated from English into Chinese, or adding the exponents in a complex equation to get a seat-of-the-pants estimate of projected wind speed.
A steel trap working memory helps explain why some students can be so quick to get the right answer-they can hold the disparate pieces of a problem in mind all at one time as they work out the solution.
But not all students have strong working memories. Some students can load the information in mind, and then, oh shiny, they’re distracted, and part of the information they’ve so painstakingly put into mind falls out of one or more of the slots.
Students with more severe attentional difficulties can have trouble paying attention enough to even get an idea loaded into the slots in the first place. These “poor working memory” types of students can be the ones who look at you with confusion when you pose a question in class-they lose the thread of the discussion because they can’t hold it easily in mind.
But here’s the interesting part. As research has shown, these “poor working memory” types of students are often more creative than the steel trap types. Why? As it turns out, the “loose,” non-steel-trap-like slots of their working memory, which can easily allow ideas and concepts to fall out, provides a covert advantage. When something falls out of working memory, something else goes in. And that, as it turns out, can be a great source of creativity!
So when we place more of our focus, and our rewards, on the successful students, we can sometimes inadvertently penalize the more creative students. In other words, the educational pipeline is biased in favor of those with strong working memories.
What to do? Actually, there’s a lot we can do as teachers to encourage creative types with less retentive working memories.
To begin with, a little more mandatory memorization in STEM subjects would be a big help. Research has shown that “chunking”-developing well-practiced neural patterns that can be easily drawn into working memory, is behind expertise in any subject, whether it’s anatomy or algebra. Well-chunked information takes less neural territory-less working memory. This can be a boon for those whose working memory is already limited. (On a side note, research has shown that the USA’s current “dead last” performance among the 22 tested nations in the OECD seems to be strongly affiliated with the deemphasis on memorization and procedural fluency in mathematics in the previous decades.)
Students with less capable working memories often thrive with mnemonics and visual memory cues. “Old People from Texas Eat Spiders,” for example, is a common mnemonic for the cranial bones. And memorizing the word “duck” in Spanish can be facilitated by painting a mental image of a duck swimming in a pot (“pato” is Spanish for duck).
Metaphors are the empress of teaching tools for difficult subjects. The concept of the “limit” in calculus, for example, can first be brought to mind by describing a stalking lizard who creeps closer and closer to its prey, never quite touching it.
And voltage shares many similarities with physical height, or mechanical pressure. The value of a metaphor, as “neural reuse theory” posits, is that it activates the same neural circuits that will eventually be used to grasp the more complex topic itself. Rather than dumbing things down, then, a metaphor can more rapidly onboard students onto difficult ideas.
Next time you’re in class, keep a look out, not only for your sharp students, but for the seemingly distracted ones. If you can, call them out by name (that always gets their attention). Use whatever teaching tools you have to keep their interest. You’ll be helping some of your most creative students, and simultaneously giving more exciting lectures that benefit all your students.
Lv, K. “The involvement of working memory and inhibition functions in the different phases of insight problem solving.” Memory & Cognition 43, 5 (2015): 709-22; Takeuchi, H, et al. “The association between resting functional connectivity and creativity.” Cerebral Cortex 22, 12 (2012): 2921-2929; White, HA, and P Shah. “Uninhibited imaginations: Creativity in adults with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.” Personality and Individual Differences 40, 6 (2006): 1121-1131.
Hartman, JR, and EA Nelson. “Automaticity in Computation and Student Success in Introductory Physical Science Courses.” arXiv preprint arXiv:1608.05006 (2016).
Anderson, ML. After Phrenology: Neural Reuse and the Interactive Brain. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014.