Human senses are bombarded by external stimuli: smells, images, sounds, textures and flavors.
We have a filter that allows only some of these stimuli in. We focus on the ones that are most interesting or relevant to us.
Our working memory works to make sense of the stimuli and to package it for storage. It is like a computer, if there is too much going on, working memory will buffer.
The information will be stored in long term memory.
Either it will be dropped off in some random location and our brain will forget the location (like losing our keys)
Or it will be stored in a file cabinet in a drawer with other information just like it. This information is easier to find.
Analogy to Classroom Learning
Here is an analogy to what happens during school instruction. You are driving down the street, like the one shown below.
There is a lot of visual stimuli. The priority is for you to pay attention to the arrows for the lanes, the red light and the cars in front of you. You have to process your intended direction and choose the lane.
Other present stimuli may be filtered out because it is not pertinent to your task: a car parked off to the right, the herbie curbies (trash bins), the little white arrows at the bottom of the photo. There is extraneous info you may allow to pass through your filter because it catches your eye: the ladder on the right or the cloud formation in the middle.
Maybe you are anxious because you are running late or had a bad experience that you are mulling over. This is using up band width in your working memory. Maybe you are a relatively new driver and simple driving tasks eat up the bandwidth as well.
Impact on Students
For students with a disability that impacts processing or attention, the task demands described above are even more challenging. A student with ADHD has a filter that is less effective. One with autism (a rule follower type) may not understand social settings such as a driver that will run a red light that just turned red. Another with visual processing issues may struggle with picking out the turn arrows. Their brain may start to buffer, like a computer.
We explain steps in great detail to students but often omit the underlying concept. The topic of adding or subtracting fractions with unlike denominators is an example of this.
The example above right is a short cut for what is shown above left. These short cuts, which math teachers love to use, add to the student’s confusion because these rules require the student to use rote memorization which does is not readily retained in the brain.
I suggest using what I call a meaning making approach. I present the student 2 slices of pizza (images courtesy of Pizza Fractions Game) and explain the following setting. “You and I both paid for pizza and this (below) is what we have left. You can have the pizza slice on the left and I will have the pizza slice on the right. Is that OK?” The student intuitively understands that it is not because the slices are different sizes. I then explain that when we add fractions we are adding pizza slices so the slices need to be the same.
I then cut the half slice into fourths and explain that all the slices are the same size so we can now add them. Then the multiplying the top and bottom by 2 makes more sense.
Below is a model for information processing (retention and retrieval). Here are a couple key points I want to highlight:
A lot of information is filtered out so what gets through? Information that is interesting or relevant.
Information that is connected to prior knowledge, is relevant or that is organized has a better change of being stored effectively for retrieval.
Working memory has a limited capacity. Consider what happens to your computer when you have a lot of apps open. Your computer may start to buffer which is basically what happens to our kiddos if instruction involves opening too many apps in their brains.
Long term memory is basically retrieval of information. Think a student’s book bag with a ton of papers crammed in it. How well can he or she find homework? Compare this to a well maintained file cabinet that has a folder labeled homework with the homework assignment in question stored in this folder. That paper is much easier to retrieve. This is analogous to long-term memory. If the information is relevant or meaningful it will be stored in the file cabinet folder and more easily retrieved. In contrast, rote memorization like the rules teachers present students are papers crammed into an overflowing bookbag.
One model for memory is called the Information Processing Model or Dual Storage Model.
Here’s the suggested process in this model in a class instruction context:
Our senses receive stimuli. In the classroom students hear the teacher or a classmate talking, see the teacher’s notes or the note being passed to them, smell various things in class, taste their gum etc.
The sensory register filters out most stimuli which means the teacher’s lesson is competing with all the other stimuli for attention. Most students are either visual or hands on learners yet the majority of instruction is conducted through auditory means. Information in a lesson that is meaningful or interesting is more likely to make it through the register.
The information that makes it to the working memory is processed. Working memory has a limited capacity. Like a computer, if it is attempting to process a lot at one time it slows down. It is hard for some students to process a lot of auditory information if they are a visual learner so as they are attempting to process they may be missing other parts of instruction. This is why scaffolding and other strategies are important. They help reduce the amount of information the student has to process. The working memory also attempts to organize and make sense of the information -Gestalt Theory. In the photo below are some examples. When I present the image below under “closure” and ask people what they see, the response is almost always “a triangle.” The really is no triangle there but the brain fills in the gaps. The brain wants to make the visual information meaningful.
The information that makes it to long term memory is filed away. Effective learning means the stored information can be readily retrieved. Think of computer files or files in a file cabinet. I have a file for Gabriel’s IEPs so I can easily retrieve them. Contrast that with how a student may stuff his homework assignment into his bookbag but later cannot find it. Effective storage is enhanced when the information is organized and makes sense. This is helped by making the information meaningful or by addressing prior knowledge (e.g. new IEPs filed with old IEPs).
Most if not all educational strategies would address some aspect of this model.