We all recall our first foray into teaching as a beginning teacher. Trying to manage the technology of SIMs for the register, meeting and greeting pupils at the door, remembering which childen have specific needs, checking for uniform, managing resources – it seemed to be there were so many things to remember and undertake. And then if you had behavioural issues as well – it could easily all overwhelm you. As experienced teachers, we know that behaviour, interruptions to our classrooms, faulty equipment and so forth, can intervene and make the basic job of teaching and adaptation exceptionally hard. But have you thought about looking at this from the perspective of cognitive science? In particular the focus on working memory?

Working memory has limitations. That’s readily established. It depends on a number of contextual factors, but regardless of those variables, it’s limited. Load it up too much with extraneous load and it stops the basic intrinsic task from being undertaken so easily. We think about this all the time for our pupils, but have we thought about it from the lens of a teacher?

There’s an interesting 2019 paper from Angelidis et al., on how acute cognitive performance anxiety increases threat-interference and impairs working memory performance. It starts from a readily established academic position that we all know about: if you stress about a situational context it affects your ability to do the task. Whether it’s public speaking or playing sport – anxiety can impair the execution. What the paper then goes on to do is to measure working memory using an established psychological test. They then cultivated stress through an established psychological method (ironically, for us as teachers, the stress is created by asking participants to perform a mathematical task whilst receiving scripted negative feedback. Maths anxiety really does need more focus!). What they discovered was that loading up the stress impaired working memory. Now to be clear, the paper acknowledges that it is established academically that some stress is helpful. Too little stress and you underperform. In particular, the focus is on anxiety, not just stress. The paper concludes anxiety is counter-productive to working memory.

Starting from this premise then, you begin to reflect on what teachers use working memory for and what things might impair this capacity. This is in no way comprehensive, but let us look at some basics.

Teachers use working memory to:

1.       Teach – the things we said at the start: managing resources, organising the lesson, asking questions, developing answers and so forth.

2.       To adapt. I separate this out because it relies on constant monitoring of students, how well they are undertaking a task and then intervening and adapting. It happens constantly and continuously as a teacher ensures that adaptation takes place and a feedback rich environment is present.

3.       Recall subject knowledge from long-term memory and apply it to the lesson.

4.       Monitor and manage behaviour. Again, there is a constant focus on behaviour as the teacher scans and ensures attention (and I use that term academically, e.g. attentional control) is maximised throughout the lesson. Very quickly we can see how too much overload, anxiety-related or simple overload could overwhelm working memory here.

5.       Follow non-negotiables. There will be tasks that always have to be followed regardless of the flow of lessons and we note that this is quite the debate in educational circles where they can be seen as unnecessary or interfere with a teacher’s ability to undertake other tasks.

6.       Ensure Ofsted compliance is being followed. I don’t know any teacher who doesn’t think about Ofsted and how they might ‘view’ the things that happen in the classroom. Writing, reading, marking – and if the school is expecting an Ofsted inspection there could be anxiety pushed onto teachers from SLT.

7.       Adult on adult bullying in the school workplace. Hierarchical, horizontal – it doesn’t matter. We all know it exists and is driving teachers from the profession. Half of the stories from that Facebook group for teachers that have left or are leaving the profession cite adult on adult bullying as the cause. That this stress can then impair teacher working memory and thus ability to teach shows that we have to be very careful in this area.

7.       Thinking about the observer’s thoughts before, during and after an observation. Anxiety about an observation can affect the very thing the observer is trying to observe.

8.       Non-teaching things. Let’s be honest here. Teachers are human. They think about divorce, children, bills, cancer, family, relationships, physical and mental health and so forth. These things could be very much related to anxiety and providing what the paper calls ‘threat-interference’ to their working memory capacity.

Quite quickly, we can all see that there are multitudes of stresses and anxiety-inducing factors that could reduce the capacity of a teacher’s working memory. There are also key pinch points in the year where anxiety and stress are high – parents’ evenings for example. All these sources of stress would then have a direct impact on the positive things that we would like teachers to spend that working memory on. But not all stress is bad remember. Reviewing children’s access to learning and introducing adaptation is a healthy stress – it requires careful monitoring and intervention. Creating a feedback rich environment is helpful, but stressful. In a good way. Thinking hard about questions and questioning takes working memory capacity. Recalling subject knowledge really does need working memory capacity and focus and is eminently helpful for the lesson. But if you are trying to cope with poor behaviour then recalling subject knowledge becomes more challenging. If you have anxiety about poor behaviour, even when the behaviour isn’t present, it still affects working memory.

If we are to keep teachers in the profession then we have to focus on the working memory of teachers, not just pupils. We need to think about tackling things like poor behaviour. We need to question ourselves about the helpfulness and accuracy of observations as well as reflect on the impact of the anxiety produced in teachers by Ofsted and even things like non-negotiables. We should be focused on ensuring that things like providing support for teachers going through challenging times with family and health are readily available. Doing things such as these can free up capacity in working memory for the things that really matter in the lesson – the teaching and the adaptation. It’s time to focus on the working memory of teachers, not just pupils.

As part of our ongoing work we periodically undertake research into areas of neuroscience and cognitive science and their application to teaching. If you are interested in being contacted in the future with a view to being a participant, please email james.shea@beds.ac.uk to be placed on a register of interested participants. If a suitable project becomes available in the future you will be contacted and offered an ethically vetted process to give consent to participate.

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