Monday, June 2, 2008

Working Memory & Exercise

“Working memory is the gateway to authentic learning,” I wrote earlier this year. Without working memory activation, data will not proceed past sensory registration, preventing consolidation or construction of long-term memory. “Working memory is now known to be a busy, temporary workspace,” explains John Medina (2008), “a desktop the brain uses to process newly acquired information” (p. 124). And the deeper, more elaborate and personal that processing is, the greater the likelihood of data reaching long-term memory.

Recently, researchers at the University of Michigan seem to have discovered a means of improving working memory capacity. Subjects played a simple, Concentration-like card game and then completed tasks requiring fluid intelligence. Fluid intelligence is a cognitive ability that enables reasoning and problem-solving, especially when tasks do not correspond to previous experience. It plays critical roles in learning.

For the first time, this research team demonstrated not only that working memory capacity can be increased, but that it can also be transferred. And, as the subjects experienced more training, their working memory capacity, and thus their fluid intelligence abilities, increased. Additional training increased achievement (Jaeggi, Buschkuehl, Jonides, & Perrig, 2008).

This represents important brain-related research for educators! If working memory capacity can be increased, our approaches to working with all learners, but especially struggling learners, may have powerful new options. Increasing working memory capacity can improve learning abilities and many school-related tasks, such as reading comprehension.

Combine this with the attention exercise is getting, and we may be on the verge of a new combination of activities that dramatically influence learning and brain functioning. In addition to Ratey’s recent book, John Medina (2008) discusses exercise’s impact on brain plasticity. “Physical activity,” claims Medina, “is cognitive candy” (p. 22). In addition to increasing blood flow to hippocampal regions of the brain, which are critical for memory formation, exercise increases Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor, which keeps neurons healthy and more likely to form connections and encourages the formation of new neurons. Exercise can literally grow the brain!

What does this mean for educators? First, with new research suggesting working memory can be improved, methods for working with all learners should incorporate proven methods. We are not only teaching so students learn, we are teaching them how to learn. By improving their working memory abilities, we can increase their learning in all areas. Second, we can no longer ignore the influence of exercise. We MUST begin to take exercise seriously as a learning tool. However, allow me to clarify this: by exercise, I mean students actually engaging in regular (i.e., daily!) cardiovascular activity. Playing a softball game in gym class won’t cut it, and neither will pocket video games allowed in the playground. We need to be teaching students exercise habits that can last a lifetime.

Think of it—new neurons ready for use, current neurons ready to connect, and working memories operating optimally. What a learning environment we could create inside our students’ heads!

Now, where are my running shoes and that deck of Concentration cards?!?

Before concluding, I want to suggest a couple of resources. If you read only one teaching-learning related book this summer, make it John Medina’s Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School. (Order a copy here.) It’s easy to read and loaded with useful information. Dr. Ginger Campbell interviewed Medina on the Brain Science Podcast (download Episode 37). (The show notes for this interview are here.) The book is outstanding, and the interview is excellent. While at the Brain Science Podcast site, check out Episode 38, which features an interview with Jeff Hawkins, the author of On Intelligence. There's a great discussion of pattern recognition that will be of interest to readers with an interest in the Architecture of Learning. Enjoy!

Medina, J. (2008). Brain rules: 12 principles for surviving and thriving at work, home, and school. Seattle: Pear Press.

1 comment:

Martin said...

Hello, Kevin.

I completely agree with you on the importance of the emerging concept of training exercises.

I've been training my working memory capacity using the training technique you mention that was developed by Susanne Jaeggi and Martin Buschkuehl of the Universities of Michigan and Bern.

I was so impressed by the research report that I developed a software program using the same method so that anyone can achieve these improvements at home.
The IQ Training Program

mind evolve, llc
PS. My working memory is up to an average of 11 items after about a month of training. And I can now complete the NY Times Saturday crossword puzzle!!