What is learning? What is memory?
According to Dr. Patricia Wolf, renowned educator and author of Brain Matters, Translating Research into Classroom Practice, “Learning is the act of making (and strengthening) connections between thousands of neurons forming neural networks or maps.” While “Memory is the ability to reconstruct or reactivate the previously-made connections” (pg. 18, Wolfe, 2018). When we learn something new, we’re creating new connections between our neurons, and when we want to remember something we call on those neurons to become activated so we can recall what we’ve learned before.
Your Reticular Activating System (RAS) takes a leading role in determining what is important and what is not when it comes to paying attention to various stimulations. Your senses take in thousands of stimuli in a day, so it filters out what isn’t important and sends information that you want to pay attention to straight to the Working Memory section of the brain. Information is only in the Sensory Memory area for about one or two seconds before it is sent to Working Memory or discarded (Armstrong, 2008).
The main function of working memory is to hold information temporarily and decide what it’s going to keep or delete. This is the area where the brain consciously processes information and makes sense of what it is learning.
“When a student loses portions of the content or are unable to absorb what is being taught, coherence is threatened because information has gaps and cannot be retrieved for meaning” (Armstrong, 2008). Teachers need to understand the importance of these memory systems when designing lesson plans. Good lessons avoid the pitfalls of too much content and boring teacher delivery.
Rehearsal strengthens memory through a process called consolidation. This rehearsal strengthens and stabilizes the connections of neurons over days, weeks, months and even years (Wolfe P. , 2018). Teachers must constantly check for understanding while information is being processed in the students’ Working Memory to be sure it is complete and accurate.
Information is stored in our Long-term Memory section of this model. Data must be recalled or retrieved into Working Memory to consciously process it. A good example of this is when I sing along to songs that were popular back in high school. The songs are pulled into my Working Memory. Neuroscientists believe that once you learn something it is forever stored in our long-term memory. The trick is retrieving information.
It’s important for teachers to understand how this information process model works. It takes time for consolidation to occur. How long it takes all depends on the information learned and the individual who is studying it. We know that consolidation does take place and that introducing new information too soon disrupts consolidation of previous learning (pg. 157, Wolfe, 2010). Therefore, teachers need to be wary of specifying time lengths between the introduction of new material. Building elaborate rehearsal strategies into the lessons will give students time to process the information learned in depth.
Dr. Lou E. Whitaker, Ed. D., Neuro-Education Consultant, has a Bachelor of Science in Education from Northern Illinois University, a Masters in Administration from National-Louis University and a Doctorate in Educational Leadership from Nova Southeastern University. Having over 35 years of experience in education, she has been a teacher, an assistant principal, a principal, and served as the Associate Superintendent for Schools for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. She is currently an Educational Consultant for Open Minds Enterprises, EdCenter, Global Center for College & Career Readiness, as well as a consultant for MeTEOR Education.Chosen as one of Dr. Pat Wolfe’s Brainy Bunch Members, she has been involved with Dr. Wolfe’s continuous study of the human brain. The Brainy Bunch is a group of educators and health professionals who are passionate about brain development and its impact on learning. On a yearly basis, the group invites two outstanding neuroscientists to meet with them and discuss their latest research developments. Then this renowned group of educators, led by Dr. Wolfe, translate neurological research into classroom practice. Dr. Whitaker understands the importance of keeping abreast of what is going on in neuroscience as well as understanding the importance of data-driven best practice research. These are essential for making a positive impact on our students’ lives.