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A model of the mind

As teachers, every day you are aiming to teach pupils new concepts, ideas, and strategies that they can use and apply inside and outside of school. For any meaningful learning to have taken place, there must be a lasting change in pupils’ understanding and capabilities.

An important factor in learning is memory. Over the past 25 years, significant breakthroughs have been made in terms of our understanding of how the mind learns, and how we can support the occurrence of lasting change. Having a good understanding of the research around memory and learning will enable you to integrate the findings into your practice, and in turn, help pupils to learn new information more quickly.

Listen to the module expert Ben Riley, the Executive Director of Deans for Impact, as he explains what we know about how pupils learn best, and the role that memory plays in this process.

How pupils learn – Benjamin Riley

Video transcript

Hi, I’m Benjamin Riley, the Founder and Executive Director of Dean’s for Impact – a US based, non-profit organisation working to ensure that all children are taught by well-prepared teachers. And part of our work is about making sure that teachers are well prepared by having a firm understanding of how pupils learn. So that’s what I’m going to try to explain to you today in a very short video – how do pupils learn? We don’t have a lot of time, so let’s dive right in.

So, there’s some good news I have, there’s some bad news I have. I have a model for you that will explain the good news and bad news, and I have a little bit more good news, and then we’re going to end with a quiz. So that’s the outline, let’s start with the good news.

Here’s the good news: Our minds are more alike than different in how we think and learn. That’s a phrase I borrowed from my friend Dan Willingham, the cognitive scientist. You’ll be hearing from him a few times in this short video. And what he means by that is that our minds are the product of evolution, they’ve literally evolved over millions of years and, absent of cognitive impairment, all of our mind’s function in basically the same way. We’ll get to a model in a moment that will sort of explain what that looks like. So, the nice thing about that is that there is relative stability that we can use to plan around as teachers, as educators. An awful lot of change has been going on in the world over the last year, few years, and there’s an awful lot of people who think technology and other things are actually changing how we think, but it’s not really true. Our minds are the product of evolution, and they have stability as such. So that’s the good news! Now here’s the bad news. That same evolution has actually resulted in minds, as Dan Willingham says, that were not built to think. And that’s a super counterintuitive idea. So let me explain what I mean by that, by turning to what Willingham calls the simplest model of the mind. And you can see here a diagram that really consists of two parts:

Diagram shows the relationship between working and long-term memory, with information being recalled from long-term to working memory when needed and processed into long-term for storage. Environmental factors also input into working memory.
Willingham (2009)

On one side, we have a model of the mind and there’s two pieces of this:

  1. Working Memory
  2. Long Term Memory

Working memory is where all conscious thought takes place. Right now, your working memory is hearing me speak certain words and is processing what those mean. Long-term memory has all the things that you have stored in your mind, so as ideas are coming into your head, you’re drawing upon things you already know to make sense of the new things that are coming into your head. And then, over here on the other side you have the environment. And this is just a generic description for everything that exists outside of your mind – all of the information that may funnel towards you is part of the environment.

So, there are some interesting aspects of this model that I think are vital for teachers to know. The first is that, and this is a real challenge, that working memory is quite limited and as far as we can tell, is basically unchangeable. So, what that means is that it’s hard for us to think. If you’ve ever done some sort of task where you suddenly felt yourself giving up, it’s because you literally reach what some would call cognitive overload – your working memory essentially got to the point where it was too strenuous for you to continue to think about something. So that’s a real challenge that teachers have to work around. The good news is that, as far as we can tell, your capacity to add to your long-term memory, in other words your capacity to learn things, is limitless. And the really good news is, the more that you add to the long-term memory, the easier it becomes to learn new things. Our ability to understand new ideas depends on the ideas that we already know. So, in some ways, the central task of teaching is to take knowledge that exists in the world, in the environment, bring it to pupils, funnel it through their working memories such as it were, and then hopefully get to the point where it becomes stored in long-term memory. That’s not easy to do and it’s actually I think the central challenge of teaching, is that every pupil comes with different uh background knowledges and they have different ability to understand new ideas and just to give you a quick example: If you’re hearing me speak these words and understanding what I’m saying, it’s because you have the English language as part of your long-term memory, but I’m guessing not all of you have the same level of knowledge of the language of English as the rest. Some of you may have English as your second or third or fourth language that you learned. Some of you may still be trying to learn it and so as I’m speaking these words, you’re actually probably spending more of your working memory to try and understand what I’m saying. I might be speaking too fast; I might have used a vocabulary word you’re unfamiliar with. This sort of challenge is the same one that every teacher faces day in and day out. They have students with different, different sets of background knowledge and they have to figure out what it is they need to do in order to reach them and have them engaged with the ideas and information that they want to engage them with.

Now, the good news is that that’s the fun of teaching and that, with this model in mind, you will hopefully have a better sort of grasp of how to think about why is a student struggling and what you might do to address it.

So, lets end with a quick quiz:

What is it that you can add to, and improve with a student? Can you change their:

a) Working memory

b) Long-term Memory

c) Both

d) Neither

The answer of course is B – that with the right instruction you can help students improve their long-term memory. And if that doesn’t sound inspiring enough, I will just say that by improving that knowledge you really empower your students to empower themselves and to really continue to not only learn things but to enjoy it and to want to learn.

So that’s a lot to cover in 5 minutes but I’ve given you a brief overview of how pupils learn, and I hope it’s helpful!

Working and long-term memory

As you have heard from Ben Riley, a useful way to think about memory is as a system, comprised of two components: long-term memory and working memory.

Diagram shows the relationship between working and long-term memory, with information being recalled from long-term to working memory when needed and processed into long-term for storage. Environmental factors also input into working memory.
Willingham (2009)

Long-term memory can be considered a store of knowledge that changes and grows as pupils learn. The knowledge remains in the long-term memory until it is needed, when it enters the working memory. For example, if you were asked the question how many legs a spider has, you would remember that the answer is eight. This knowledge has been drawn into your working memory from your long-term memory.

Working memory is the site of awareness and thinking, where we hold information that is being actively processed by our mind. The working memory draws upon both the environment and long-term memory to process things. It is very small in capacity and, unlike long-term memory, its capacity cannot be changed.

Within your working memory might be the things you are noticing from your environment, such as the temperature and light levels, as well as things you are currently thinking about. When teaching, it is important that you reduce distractions that will take the focus of the working memory away from what is being taught. For example, ensuring that there is a purposeful learning environment, free from distracting behaviours, or making sure the content you are teaching is pitched correctly in terms of your learners’ abilities. This will ensure pupils are focusing on the new learning, rather than other potential distractors.

The working memory also processes information into long-term memory for storage and later retrieval. It is important to note that the working memory has a very small capacity. Pupils with a learning difficulty that affects their working memory may have a smaller capacity still and will require information to be provided in small steps. For all pupils, the limitations of the working memory have fundamental implications for the process of teaching and learning. This is explored in the next section of the module.


Having heard from Ben Riley and read further around the Willingham model of the mind, consolidate your understanding of this topic by answering the following question:

  • what is the role of the working and long-term memory in the process of learning? Prepare to share this explanation with your mentor during your next mentor interaction.

The limitations of the working memory

The fact that the working memory is limited in its capacity has profound implications for teaching and learning. To experience the limitations of the working memory, try to work out the maths problems below without writing anything down.

  1. 2x3
  2. 6x7
  3. 12x15
  4. 183x587
  5. 1983x1874

As the questions became more complex, it is likely that you did not know the answer and couldn’t therefore retrieve it from your long-term memory. You would have attempted to hold some information in your working memory and manipulate it. As the numbers got larger still, you may well have tried to remember and manipulate more than your working memory could handle. If this was the case, you would have experienced working memory overload and either become frustrated or given up, feeling that it was impossible to complete.

You may be able to recall times when you noticed that your pupils were experiencing working memory overload, and they put their head down on the desk or became disengaged from a task that they have been working on. If you had been allowed to write down the numbers, or you knew the times tables relating to the questions, the amount of information being processed by your working memory would have been less, meaning that you were having to hold and manipulate less information at the same time.

As a teacher you are introducing pupils to new information all the time, with the intention that they process, manipulate and transfer this knowledge into their long-term memory. Therefore, understanding the limitations of the working memory is critical. The way you deliver new learning to your pupils has a profound impact on whether they learn it or not.

Avoid overloading the working memory

Learning involves a lasting change in pupils’ capabilities or understanding. If you want your pupils to learn and retain new information, you need to avoid overloading the working memory, giving the knowledge a chance of becoming stored in the long-term memory. In this section, we will explore how the capacity of the working memory can be protected by building on pupils’ prior knowledge.

Considering prior knowledge

As you have already explored, an effective way to avoid overloading the working memory is to be able to draw on information from your long-term memory. When introducing a new concept or idea, building on prior knowledge that is already stored in the long-term memory can mean that you reduce the risk of overloading the working memory, as the pupil can apply some of their prior knowledge to help them understand the new content. As Ben Riley mentioned in his video, pupils may have different levels of prior knowledge around a topic. As such, trying to build on this can be a challenge for teachers.

Building on prior knowledge

When you are deciding how to introduce new knowledge, carefully consider the three questions below to help pupils use their prior knowledge to support their understanding:

  1. What existing knowledge and vocabulary do pupils need to have in order to be able to access and understand the new idea or concept?
  2. What are the key ideas and concepts that you want your pupils to learn?
  3. How could you link these key ideas and concepts to their prior knowledge?

The answers to these three questions will provide a starting place for your planning, and an understanding of where to pitch new learning. Listen to Teacher Educator and History teacher Lee Donaghy talk through how he assessed his pupils’ prior knowledge, and how he built on this in an effort to avoid overloading the working memory.

Video transcript

I was preparing to teach the module ‘USA 1945-75’ to my year 10 GCSE history class. We were focusing specifically on the ‘Red Scare’, a period of heightened fear of Communism and its threat to the United States in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and we were working towards answering the enquiry question: ‘How did the international situation make Americans more fearful of communism?’.

In order to access this topic, I knew my pupils needed to know the international context at the end of World War Two. I was aware that they had studied World War Two in year 9, and so checking their prior knowledge of it, and re-teaching it if necessary, would mean they all had the foundational knowledge needed to help them learn the events, people and concepts that we would cover in this new topic.

I checked this foundational knowledge through a simple assessment task where I asked pupils to list the theatres and combatants in World War Two, as well as recall some of the key dates. This showed me, almost inevitably, that some pupils had remembered more of this knowledge than others. This meant I had to re-teach this information, by re-capping events firstly in Europe and then in the Far East during the war. I then secured this specific knowledge in pupils’ long-term memories through repeated retrieval of the same information in each of that week’s lessons. You can see that I actually gave pupils most of the sentence, and they only needed to fill out the date. This is because I wanted to really focus their thinking on the dates, as these were the key pieces of information I wanted them to retain.

The final thing pupils needed before accessing the new content was to understand the concepts of Capitalism and Communism, and the differences between them, in order to begin to understand why people in the USA may have feared Communism. In my experience, pupils tend to arrive in year 10 with a vague understanding in this area, and often carry some misconceptions, such as Capitalism being synonymous with democracy. In order to bring every pupil to a similar level of understanding, we read about the two systems and then categorised their economic and political features. Again you can see that I have highlighted some of the key points in the text to focus pupil thinking towards the key elements of these concepts. I added questions on the key differences to the retrieval quizzes I used for the remainder of the week, again to secure this specific knowledge in pupils’ long-term memories.

With all of this foundational knowledge now secure, I felt confident that the burden on their working memories would be reduced when we moved on to encounter new knowledge.

The new knowledge I wanted pupils to learn was largely dictated by the exam specification. Pupils needed to understand how events outside of the USA in the half decade or so after World War Two led to an increase in the fear of Communism inside the USA.

However, before explaining how I linked this new knowledge to pupils’ prior knowledge, I want to give one very specific example of the precise knowledge that I identified pupils needed. I focused in very specifically on the term ‘Red Scare’, as I wanted pupils to have a clear understanding of its meaning. I used a visual image from the period to demonstrate attitudes towards Communism in the USA and explained that ‘Red’ was used as a shorthand for Communism and Communists, before we wrote a working definition of the term ‘Red Scare’ that pupils could refer to throughout this section of content.

I finally turned to teaching pupils about the events outside of the USA that drove increased fear of Communism. Focusing on the first series of events, the Soviet expansion in Eastern Europe, we returned to what pupils already knew about World War Two in Europe. Pupils recalled that Nazi Germany had been invaded from the West by the USA and Britain and from the East by the Soviet Union. I was able to build on this knowledge to explain that many of the countries in Eastern Europe through which the Soviets had passed during the invasion of Germany stayed under Soviet control in the immediate post-war years, and that by 1950 many of them had Communist governments which were installed and supported by the Soviet Union. The general, foundational understanding that pupils had of the USSR’s role in the defeat of Nazi Germany and the geography of the conflict in Europe supported their ability to assimilate the more detailed information about which countries became communist and how this divided Europe between a Capitalist West and Communist East. We were then able to drill down further, looking at specific events in 1948 and 1949, like the Berlin Blockade and Airlift, the partition of Germany and the creation of NATO.

<End slide show, back to talking head>To sum up, I secured the knowledge that pupils had previously learned about World War Two by checking their recall of key facts and dates about the conflict, re-teaching it as necessary and testing it. I also explicitly taught the key features of, and differences between, Capitalism and Communism in order to overturn some potential misconceptions. I then built on this foundational knowledge by clarifying and defining the term ‘Red Scare’, and then introduced new knowledge about Soviet expansion in Eastern Europe with reference to what pupils already knew about World War Two in Europe and how the conflict had ended.

Consider the following questions

  1. What existing knowledge and vocabulary did the pupils need to have in order to be able to access and understand the new idea or concept?
  2. What are the key ideas and concepts that Lee wanted his pupils to learn?
  3. How did he link these key ideas and concepts to the pupils’ prior knowledge?

As Lee explained, when planning his unit of work, he selected a number of key facts, essential concepts and skills that he wanted to ensure that pupils would be able to commit to their long-term memory. If pupils have a secure number of key components committed to memory, it means they can call upon them to support their thinking as the complexity of the learning increases. Through his planning he was able to provide opportunities for all pupils to learn and master these critical components, and he ensured that he focused his pupils’ thinking on these key historical ideas.

Where prior knowledge is weak, pupils are more likely to develop misconceptions, particularly if the new ideas are introduced too quickly. It is important to ensure that the necessary foundational knowledge is secure, as Lee did, so that critical thinking or problem solving can be developed.

In the next session we will look at ways to introduce new knowledge to pupils that do not overload the working memory, and thus help to avoid the development of misconceptions.

Reflect on your learning from this session by considering how you have introduced new ideas or concepts to your pupils to date.


Consider a new idea or concept you have taught, which pupils struggled to understand.

On reflection, what knowledge and/or vocabulary did you assume that they had? How did this impact on their learning?

Prepare to share your reflections with your mentor.