Are we creating school underachievers because we don’t take working memory into account?

When children struggle in school, there is every reason to consider whether it could be due to an overload of working memory. My experiences suggest that the answer to this question is an unequivocal yes. I had this confirmed, among other things, when I borrowed some students at a school in Oslo a few years ago.

Exploring “JUMP Math” from Canada

I was trying out an educational program from Canada called JUMP Math (“Junior Undiscovered Math Prodigy”). This pedagogy takes working memory into account and has an exciting history that you can read about in the book “The Myth of Ability” by John Mighton. I met twelve enthusiastic kids, but they were quite clear when I asked them how they felt about mathematics. None of them liked the subject, and some expressed loudly that they hated math. Fortunately, they still participated in the program, which was specifically designed to boost the confidence of children struggling with math.

The goal with fractions as a theme

Fractions were chosen as the theme because they are usually associated with being very difficult. When children with math challenges feel that they can master fractions, it often gives them a little extra confidence. The goal was for them to master adding and subtracting fractions with common and different denominators. To do this, they also needed to understand multiplication, so we started by practicing the 2, 3, and 5 times tables. Then we worked on different shapes that demonstrated the concept of fractions before practicing an algorithm to find common denominators by multiplying with the opposite denominator. This practice even included something as simple as preparing punctuation in the form of multiplication signs, fraction lines, and equal signs. To my surprise, that was not too basic.

They needed to practice that too, i.e., how to organize their calculations. Perhaps just as important, for each new skill level, the students had many exercises to practice before moving on to the next skill. And because none of the exercises were text-based, reading difficulties were not a challenge. After three double lessons spread over two weeks, all the students had successfully completed all the tasks! It was fascinating to see how the joy of doing math suddenly emerged. Mathematics had become fun.

Children’s perception of mathematics

They could now distinguish between different strategies when adding fractions. When there was a common denominator, they added the numerators, and when the denominators were different, they had to figure out if they needed to expand one or both before adding them. The program was by no means a complete education in fractions, but it gave the students the confidence to want to learn more.

The methodology was in stark contrast to the textbooks the students usually used. There were many different types of exercises on each page. To solve them, the students had to master several skills at once, which were not practiced separately. In addition, the pages were overloaded with text, figures, and various graphic elements, a design that was in stark contrast to the calm black-and-white design of the exercises we had worked on.

Customized teaching

An English study has examined the effect of teaching that takes working memory into account (Elliott, 2010). Here, teachers received training in recognizing children with low working memory and adapting their teaching for such children. Then the classes were followed for a year. The teachers found it easy to adjust their teaching so that they presented only a small amount of information at a time.

Many also had an aha moment regarding students they had previously described as disobedient. They realized that these students had low working memory capacity. They simply forgot much of what was said. At the same time, they noticed that these students gained more self-confidence because they could complete more tasks than before.

Math workbooks for children struggling with mathematics

Scientist factory has developed math workbooks designed to assist children who are having difficulties with mathematics. Our fraction and multiplication workbooks are in black and white and feature simple shapes with minimal text. Additionally, we have made an effort to introduce only one or two new skills at a time. The goal behind the design is to minimize unnecessary strain on working memory.

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