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Translating the Brain

By Jennifer Fogarty, communications content manager
Guest speaker Andrew Watson explores working memory with faculty and shares retrieval practice study tips with families.
Before school on a December morning, Middle School faculty gathered to participate in a professional growth workshop on “working memory” with Andrew Watson, author, educator and speaker. During his multi-day visit, Mr. Watson also met with members of the Learning Resource Center (LRC) and shared tips with families on how students can study and learn more efficiently.

Mr. Watson translates current brain research into practical strategies for the classroom and home. After he earned a master’s degree in education in Harvard’s Mind Brain Education program in 2012, Mr. Watson created Translate the Brain and has traveled the globe to speak at conferences and schools. He studies educational psychology and neuroscience and explores research on memory, attention and motivation. The LRC also hosted a workshop with Mr. Watson in August for faculty in Grades 5–12 as part of the LRC’s partnership with faculty to support students on their learning journey. 

“Collaboration allows us to use a common language and discuss researched strategies to accommodate our students better,” explains Middle School world language educator Laura del Moral. “It is important to work with the LRC because they learn about a student’s experience and struggles in the classroom. The greatest challenge that educators face is to make learning manageable. We can break down the content into manageable chunks and consistently check for understanding to not overload working memory.” 

Anyone who has forgotten a shopping list item or a phone number has experienced working memory issues. Working memory is an executive functioning skill that processes, organizes and manipulates information. It is activated when doing mental math or following multiple-step instructions. Middle School faculty discussed how to anticipate and identify working memory problems and shared the solutions currently used successfully in their classrooms. Using a planner to record assignments and backward plan when a project is due is one way to decrease the load on working memory.

“Watson’s ideas align with the best theories of language acquisition,” shares Ms. del Moral. “When learning a new language, we do not want to overload the student’s working memory. Children learn how to ride a bike by doing, falling and trying again. That is my style of teaching Spanish. The student needs to be exposed to a lot of the language, naturally, to acquire these structures effectively. This way, language learners are not aware that they are acquiring a language. They are only aware that they are using the language to communicate, just like they are using a bike to ride.”

During his session with parents and guardians, Mr. Watson explored the strategy of retrieval practice. If students can recall information they have already learned, they can focus their studying on the parts that didn’t stick and review only those chapters, concepts, vocabulary words, etc.

Mr. Watson compared studying and learning to climbing a mountain. To prepare for both, you would prepare your mind, body and environment. 

  • Mind: Look in the brain first, not the book. Pull information from the brain by using flashcards and Quizlet or asking questions about the material.

  • Body: Getting 8–9 consecutive hours of sleep every night is one of the most important things we can do for our brains. Think of sleep as a homework assignment and schedule it in the calendar. Eating a healthy diet and exercising are good for the body and the brain.

  • Environment: Simplify the environment. Human brains are terrible at doing two things at once. Brains manage one thing at a time, so do one thing at a time. Reading comprehension increases when there are no other distractions. If music is preferred in the background, make sure there are no lyrics.

How can parents and guardians be supportive? Mr. Watson suggests allowing students to find their independence now. Do less than you think. Allow them to learn to rely on themselves and become aware of what they need in order to ask for it. Families can adjust nutrition and sleep schedules and help with a quiet environment. Another option is to make flashcards together or quiz children on the material. Asking students not only what they learned but having them explain it involves making sense of information and mentally filing it, helping the working memory and using retrieval practice.


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