Intuition taster: The vital role of memory in learning

Most teachers get precious little training in psychology. That’s a pity because knowing how people – particularly young people – think and learn ought to be a boon to anyone planning to embark on a career in teaching.

Arguably, the most important area of psychology for teachers to know about is the science of memory. The Working Memory Model has been around for a few decades and is a pretty solid foundation on which most of our current understanding of learning is built.

Essentially, our working memory is the site of consciousness in which we think about what’s happening in our environment. But our working memory is limited and most of us struggle to process more than four ‘chunks’ of information at once. If we try to hold more than this in mind we very quickly become confused, frustrated and forgetful.

Luckily, we are able to supplement our fragile working memories by holding vast stores of knowledge in our long-term memories. Anything we have thought about gets stored here. This is then organised into interconnected networks called schema.

Our ability to recall is based on receiving prompts from the environment that cue up connected ideas. So, if I say ‘bread’, you will probably think about ‘butter.’ The more connected an item of knowledge is, the easier it is to recall, Eventually, schemas can become so well connected that we develop the ability to operate on auto-pilot.

The challenge for teachers is that this process of automation doesn’t always happen smoothly when teaching abstract concepts. If students’ recall of basic foundational information isn’t effortless, then their working memories are rapidly overwhelmed.

Essentially, anything that requires effort and attention reduces our capacity to think and anything that can be performed effortlessly frees up precious working memory reserves. For this reason, the primary goal of teaching should be to help students acquire increasingly well-organised schema so that they can think about more challenging subject content without becoming overloaded.


David Didau is a teacher, author, blogger, consultant and speaker. He runs the popular and influential Learning Spy blog. His books include What if everything you knew about education was wrong? (Crown House Publishing) and What every teacher needs to know about psychology (John Catt Educational Ltd).