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Improving working memory to enhance the learning capacity of children, to raise outcomes

posted 31 May 2016, 03:38 by Craig Nicholson   [ updated 31 May 2016, 03:44 ]

In the past, people have considered ‘intelligence’ and the ‘learning capacity’ of individuals to be fixed. However, views have considerably changed over time. It has since been proven that the intelligence of individuals can in fact be raised. Working memory is vitally important to the classroom setting as it is the reason why children are able to progress at different rates. Obviously the way in which children progress, has a marked impact on the way in which teachers plan and assess individuals. 

The temporal lobe of the brain is associated with the long term memory. This provides individuals with the ability to remember past events, access knowledge for facts and have the ability to summarise key points; drawing on past experience. The frontal lobe is concerned with intelligence and the way in which information is processed. It is able to temporarily storing and processing information over a short period of time, sometimes referred to as ‘the gateway to memory’. 

We use Working Memory when we hold onto or store some information in our head, or to use or process this information in some way. Clearly this can have a direct impact upon the children’s ability to perform well in the classroom, whether that be positively or negatively.



Meemo aims ‘to increase children’s Working Memory we need to provide them with a range of targeted activities which stretch their capacity in just the right way.’

Principles underpinning personalized learning (John West-Burnham 18/04/16- Workshop 3) ‘Learning is a neurological function’ Memory development is an essential part of the learning process, in order to children to process information gained accurately and over a period of time. Therefore it must be concluded that specific time must be set aside in order to discretely improve working memory skills of young people, where it is deemed to be of a poor quality. 

‘However old we are, our brain changes every day – the human brain has great plasticity,’ says neuroscientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore of the Department for Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London, ‘Each time we recognise a new face, learn a new word, we make changes in our brain structure. In a changing environment, the normal brain can’t help but learn.’  As a result of these findings, it is essential that children have good working memory skills. 

Additionally, Blakemore and Firth have discussed the ways in which the brain relies upon different structures to learn. ‘In terms of brain structures involved in learning, mathematics differs from learning to read, which differs from learning to play the piano. Each memory system relies on a different brain system and develops at a slightly different time.’ (2005)


Classroom impact

Interestingly, Dr Richard Skelton (educational psychologist and creator of ‘MeeMo’) states that between 10-15% of children within any average classroom (approximately thirty children) may have significant difficulties with working memory. This may manifest itself so that children struggles to concentrate effectively, struggle with spelling, reading, writing and mental maths and regularly appear ‘off-task’ for no apparent reason. Children who possess difficulties with working memory will also find it difficult to process and complete a series of instructions. 

Dr Skelton states that children of five years old have the ability to process a series of two instructions at a time, children of eight years old should be able to process three at a time and children of ten years old four at a time. Over the next six years, young people should only be able to process up to five pieces of information at any one time. This has considerable impact for the classroom setting and the way in which we should address children, at all ages. 

Working memory is key to being able to ‘perfect’ learning. Learning to blend and segment for both early reading and writing demands a lot of the working memory. Writing is a simultaneous activity and as such puts added pressure on children to remember a variety of skills at once. If children have an issue with their processing capacity, they will struggle to successfully answer mental maths questions. 

Children with poor working memory can be seen to be disruptive or lacking in attention. However, in many cases it is actually because they have literally lost their train of thought and are struggling to make links in learning with prior knowledge they have acquired. Many in fact are unaware altogether about prior learning that has taken place and have quite simply 'forgotten' Children with ADHD lack the ability to fully process due to their difficulties with concentration. They may in fact have a greater capacity, but may be too distracted to use if effectively. 

Recent research has indicated that working memory is key to emotional wellbeing, although more research is still required in this field. However, this would make logical sense as a child who has good working memory skills will be able to link knowledge and consider a problem. Equally, they will be able to store solutions to draw on for future reference in order to cope with conflict effectively. Working memory is required when children think and plan ahead. These are an essential life skills children need as they grow and develop; particularly for life in secondary school. 

The issue with working memory is that it can have a direct impact on how children perform in test situations and how they process and store new information. It affects how children actually learn. According to researchers Susan Gathercole and Tracy Alloway, about 70% of children with learning difficulties in reading have poor Working Memory skills (2007)


What we did

‘Meemo’ programme as developed by Rising stars was created and developed by Dr Richard Skelton. Recent advances in our understanding of the human brain have demonstrated that we can improve children’s Working Memory capacity and, in doing so, increase their potential to learn and achieve. Recently, I was fortunate to experience a webinar, led by Richard Skelton, in which he delved further in to the background information behind the ‘MeeMo’ programme. 

‘MeeMo’ is intended for all pupils. It can easily be used as a whole class, it is practical and a fun way to improve working memory through the use of short, memory tasks. Although it is not necessarily for adult use, from using the programme, I feel that it could certainly be used and utilised in Key Stage 3, despite originally being aimed at Key Stage 2 pupils. 

It is also true that some children can appear ‘passive’ learners. However, through the use of the ‘Meemo’ programme, the deficit in working memory can be assessed and worked upon. 

If difficulties related to working memory are not clearly identified then their learning capacity is significantly hindered. This essentially puts a ‘ceiling’ on children’s learning. By identifying problems with working memory, the possibility to improve becomes available. Thus enabling pupils to learn more, increase their capacity to learn and achieve more across the curriculum. 

The programme is essentially a six week programme, based on each child working with another child and attempting to remember a series of objects in order to list, group, spot the difference and mix up lists. Children are required to manipulate objects and answer linked questions. The programme takes place on a daily basis. In our school we felt that it was important to do this at the same time each day to ensure consistency. ‘MeeMo’ is a relevant and engaging programme, which was only developed and released last year. As such, the research behind ‘MeeMo’ is extremely current and up-to-date. 

Children are then reassessed at the end of the six week programme, so that their ‘before’ and ‘after’ results can be compared in a bar chart form. From this, children who still fall in to the category as ‘extremely disadvantaged’ will need to use this as an intervention. 

Research shows that using ‘MeeMo’ significantly improves children’s Working Memory abilities after six weeks. These improvements are still present after two months from when children have finished using ‘MeeMo’ However, given the importance of Working Memory, teachers often prefer to keep using ‘MeeMo’ every other term. Consequently, using ‘Meemo’ is a long term investment towards improving the working memory of young people over time. It is not and should not be considered a ‘quick fix’ 

In order for a working memory programme to successfully work across Key Stage Two, over time, it would need to be consistent. ‘MeeMo’ was designed with the classroom in mind. Its development was grounded in the needs, wants and preferences of children and teachers to ensure that it is something which teachers would find easy and practical to use in the classroom context, and children would find an enjoyable and engaging experience. Teachers have found it easy to set up, run and incorporate into their daily routine.’


What we found

Children were reassessed and some pleasing results were found. Many children had made gains in their working memory scores. When it was looked at in closer detail why the programme had had less impact one reason was due to attendance. I correlated the information through the use of attendance data across the six week period in which the programme ran for. 

Another reason for less impact was due to an already acknowledged SEND issue. 

It was interesting to deliver the 'before' and 'after' testing, as initially children were daunted by the task. It begins very easy, simply having to repeat back a short series of numbers, the amount of numbers then increases until children required to repeat back a series of nine numbers, in the correct order. The second part of the task requires pupils to repeat a series of numbers back in the opposite order to which they have heard them. Lots of children struggled with the concept, but this can be overcome by a few examples stated on the page. 

Part of the reason for increased scores may have been that children were more aware of the task. However, that does not account for children actually remembering more content, in the correct order. 

In comparing the two cohorts (Year Five and Six) it was found that there was a 75% and a 65% improvement in working memory scores respectively. When exploring the differences between the gender divide, some interesting revelations were shown. 

I noted that during the reassessment, children appeared to have a 'method' when remembering order of the numbers. One child did not give any eye contact and looked directly at the floor in front of him. His eyes moved in the direction of where numbers would be on a phone. This particular child's score rose from a score of eight out of sixteen to sixteen out of sixteen, over the six week period. This taking the Year Six male from the 'average' category in to the 'exceptional' category. 

Another Year Six male traced on his hand where the numbers would be as if pressing buttons on a mobile phone When he completed his reassessment his score rose from five out of sixteen to twelve out of sixteen. This meant he had moved from the category of 'low average' to the 'advanced' category. 

Unfortunately, this was not reflective of all males within the Year Six cohort. In fact only 54% of the Year Six males made any progress at all through the use of the programme. Six out of thirteen male Year Six pupils did not make progress, with their working memory results, across the six week period. However, one of the male pupils was a New To English (NTE) child and found accessing the activities difficult, due to the language barrier. 

Although on an individual basis the Year Six females did not make as much accelerated progress as shown by th two specific examples, it does appear to have been more successful for the girls, on the whole. Of the Year Six female cohort, 86% made progress over the six week period. The one female who did not show progress in her working memory results was in fact in the 'high average' category at the beginning of the programme. However, as there are only seven Year Six female pupils this year, it is difficult to accurately compare the male and female divide. 

Interestingly, 73% of the Year Five males made progress by using the MeeMo programme. Only three children did not make progress by using the programme, however three of the male cohort have already acknowledged SEND difficulties. After the programme began, a new pupil joined the class, but for the interests of the research his scores have not been included within the data. 

Although it was more successful for the Year Five males than females, it was only marginally. 70% of the Year Five girls were shown to have made progress. Four of the females did not make progress through the programme, one of which has a ‘statement’ for SEND. Another of the females in fact performed less well in the second screening. I was aware of an attendance issue and investigated further, the attendance for the six week period of the programme was in fact less than 80% As one of the female Year Five students moved schools during this process, none of her data has been taken in to account for the purposes of the research. 

On average the progress made by the Year Five pupils was three points. Whereas the girls made, on average, two points of progress. 

Another technique utilised by some children was looking up to the left, which studies have found helps with the retrieval of information, as it shows they are usually attempting to visualise a picture. 

It is too early to presume that one six week programme will dramatically improve overall scores in Reading, Writing and Maths, but the programme guidance itself states that it should be completed more than once to see a greater impact.

From data analysis of the Year Five and Six cohorts, a group of ten pupils were selected to form an intervention group. Due to the position of the Year Six cohort in terms of the end of their primary school career and heading towards the SATs, they were deemed to be the biggest priority. Children were chosen based on having a low-average to average result from the reassessment data. All children have now undergone the programme again for maximum effect. 

Please see below for a summarising table of the results of both the Year Five and Year Six cohorts. (The categories used are those taken directly from the ‘MeeMo’ programme. The greatest differences between the ‘before’ and ‘after’ assessments have been highlighted).

Year Six cohort (male and female) 20 pupils.

Before

Exceptional- 0

After

Exceptional- 1

 

Advanced- 0

 

Advanced- 3

 

High average- 1

 

High average- 2

 

Average- 9

 

Average- 11

 

Low average- 9

 

Low average- 3

 

Disadvantaged- 1

 

Disadvantaged- 0

 

Extremely disadvantaged- 0

 

Extremely disadvantaged- 0












     

Year Five cohort (male and female) 28 pupils.

Before

Exceptional- 0

After

Exceptional- 0

 

Advanced- 2

 

Advanced- 6

 

High average- 3

 

High average- 1

 

Average- 10

 

Average- 19

 

Low average- 2

 

Low average- 0

 

Disadvantaged- 9

 

Disadvantaged- 2

 

Extremely disadvantaged- 1

 

Extremely disadvantaged- 0

                                                                                                                                                   



















Moving forward, it would be recommended that the Meemo be completed at least yearly by all Key Stage 2 pupils. The programme guidance states that benefits can be seen up to two months after completing the programme. However, in order to sustain a longer lasting result, it also states that many teachers prefer to conduct the programme every other term for maximum effect. 

It could also be used as an intervention for pupils within upper Key Stage Two, in order to assist with SATs. 

Memory apps to be investigated in order to use alongside the ‘MeeMo’ programme, which could be used as a daily intervention. It may also be accessible for Key Stage One pupils so that younger children are able to enhance their working memories earlier, as ‘MeeMo’ is aimed at Key Stage Two and upwards. 

I would recommend that when ‘MeeMo’ is being used within a year group, the class teacher administers the ‘before’ and ‘after’ assessments on an individual basis, with each child in the class. Assessments should be completed by the same person for all assessments, to ensure maximum consistency when scoring and administering. 

A huge advantage of the programme is that it clearly tracks the children’s starting points, through the use of the initial assessment. Children are then placed in to a category; ranging from extremely disadvantaged, disadvantaged, low average, average, high average, advanced to exceptional. Once the assessment is re-administered, at the end of the six weeks, a direct comparison can be shown clearly between the two results. 

Dr Richard Skelton recommends the need to reduce the cognitive overload which some pupils may experience in the classroom setting. This could be in terms of reducing the amount of instructions children need to interpret and carry out. Repeating the instructions or having a recording device available, may be another way to support those with working memory difficulties. Increasing the amount of processing time children have when answering questions. Allowing for visual support, regardless of age. This would ensure that once the information has left the short term memory, pupils can independently refer back to material which would aid their learning. In my experience, resources are often utilised well in the Early Years and in Key Stage One. As children progress through the school career, less resources are, at times, used. It is important that considerations are made for those who lack capacity in their working memory. 


Stacey Todd (English/KS2 leader) - 31st May 2016

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