My Working Memory Deficit (and why I plead to educators to find other ways)

IMG_0136It is logical to conclude that many educators and leaders lead and teach like they were once led and taught. Why not? They were  good at it. They are the one’s that succeeded – the ones that were just fine learning through rigid assessments, text based assignments, memory driven tasks, criterion based and teacher directed/controlled learning with siloed subjects and curriculum. It is perhaps why we continue to hold on, so dearly, to these methods and pedagogies, even in a world where information and knowledge resources are at an abundance and in a variety of mediums.


In 2007, I read a post by Scott Mcleod called “What do students need to Memorize”. What resonated me the most was his observation (and perhaps prediction) that the kinds of skills that employers are looking for in years to come, might not be those that were once seen as essential in the industrial age . In fact, Scott’s post gave me a strong sense of solace because I always struggled with the methods and pedagogies used during my own education, as he puts it, “those needed by workers in the industrial age factory line economy”. In many ways, I was forced to adapt to a method of learning that was counter to my learning needs and as a result I became really good at finding accommodations, alternatives and tricks that would one day not only put me ahead, but to help me truly understand those learners that do not ‘fit’ within the confines of academia.

Working memory and processing deficits were barriers for me as a learner, and sometimes they still are. I remember, like it was yesterday, spending hours trying to memorize vocabulary tests only to get half the words correct – every time. Math wasn’t as much of a problem, until I was forced to memorize formulas. That hurt. I never understood why they wouldn’t just give me the formula and let me apply it to something useful. It is why I struggled to read at the same level and pace as my peers, or why I audio recorded every one of the lectures during my post secondary education and graduate studies. To pass my psychology courses, I used to pin “fact sheets” to the walls in every room of our house until the names of certain functions or theories were embedded in my brain. And during my grad studies, it is why I read my text books and journal articles to both my children when they were just infants. It is why I struggled to complete memory fill-in-the-blank type tests and why I hated history, but loved Geography. It is why, as a teacher, I advocated so strongly for a more liberal ‘hand-held’ device policy back in 2002, when my place of employment banned them from all classrooms – my palm pilot offered a dictionary and thesaurus at my finger tips and I learned how to search for facts, words, information on a whim.

No matter how many tests or quizzes I got, no teacher in the world could “cure” or “teach” me to have a better working memory. Think of it as wearing glasses. No matter how many strategies or lectures or videos or lessons you got without the glasses, you still cannot see clearly unless the glasses are on, right? Interestingly, other than at school, I cannot think of a single day that I was discouraged to use any of my self-made accommodations that helped me with memory and spelling. In fact, I learned to think quickly, find information fast, problem solve, and work with others – these were the essential skills that I needed to survive. According to Scott, I might seem quite prepared for the 21st Century! And my lack of quick recall and need for accommodation did not put me at a disadvantage in the real world – only at school.

Now, almost 2014, we continue to have debates around the usefulness of spelling tests or open book math tests. We continue to test kids on their understanding of our courses and place a certain ‘blame’ on them when their grades don’t meet our standard. We continue to teach students in an unnatural environment – that we ourselves could not succeed in given the same circumstances: No internet, no computer/tech devices and constant evaluation. We continue to see classroom technology as “assistive” rather than universal. We continue to confuse memorization with knowledge and knowledge with intelligence.

I implore you to travel back to 2007 and re-read Scott’s post about Memorization. Ask yourself why, 7 years later, we continue to argue this point.  Even better, take a look at the comments and discussion that ensued. Are we ready to accept some of these ideas and thoughts? Are we ready to separate the concepts memory and understanding?