Dr Helen Abadzi · memory and learning · phonics

Dr Helen Abadzi

Here is a short You Tube video, featuring Dr Helen Abadzi, on, amongst other things, the role played by memory in education.

In the extract Dr Abadzi begins with the neuromyth of brainstorming and (at 1:13) she goes on to talk about the part played by memory in the learning process. Here, she talks about the relationship between long-term memory, which she likens to the ‘biggest bottle in the world’, and working memory, the very narrow ‘neck of the bottle’.

The analogy is apt because the problem with working memory, part of which is comprised of short-term memory, is that it is very narrow in terms of its capacity and its time-frame: it holds only a few items – anywhere between three and seven – at any one time; and, it does so over a very short time period – anywhere between five and twenty-five seconds.

This has implications for teaching and learning because, for someone to make a decision/solve a problem/think effectively about anything, they need to combine whatever is stored in long-term memory with what is currently in working memory.

As knowledge already held in long-term memory can be chunked (so that many items are combined and processed as if they constitute a single item), there is theoretically at least no limit to what can be brought into working memory.

For this reason and as I have pointed out before here, it is essential to get lots of knowledge into long-term memory. This is why Dr Abadzi places so much emphasis on the teaching of basics such as literacy through phonics and arithmetical computation: unless decoding and arithmetical processes are automatised, working on them takes up too much space in working memory.
Fundamentally, what she is advocating is that when we are teaching young children to read and spell or do basic arithmetic, we need to introduce new knowledge a bit at a time and we need to practise the skills particular to the manipulation of that knowledge to automaticity.

Helen Abadzi is described in UT Arlington, the University of Texas Magazine, as a maverick because she has five college degrees and two doctorates. She is a Greek psychologist who worked as Senior Education Specialist at the World Bank and is now a researcher in education at the University of Texas. She is also an enthusiastic proponent of education for poor students in low-income countries. You can view some of her publications here.

3 thoughts on “Dr Helen Abadzi

  1. Thank you very much for the great coverage! You have understood precisely an fundamental point that so many educators miss. Speed of basic skills is everything! otherwise we can't get knowledge in and out of working memory. We can think critically only if we bring to mind the needed information in milliseconds.
    Complex cognition starts with automaticity of small chunks.

  2. This blog is great! It is necessarily dealing with English, which is an easy language with probably the world's messiest spelling system. And this spelling system confounds many issues about reading instruction.

    The cognitive science issues for reading in general (mainly non-English) is presented in a detailed e-course that is free. Please visit: http://www.udemy.com/reading-essentials
    Best regards,
    Helen Abadzi

  3. Hi Helen and thank you for your comments.
    I will indeed look at your e-course.
    I recently read your paper 'Cognitive Science and the Gift of Fluency for All' and I greatly admire the work you are trying to do for very poor people in the world.
    We wrote our programme for the huge long tail of underachievement here in Uk, though the kind of approach I think we are both advocating applies just as well to those who make a good start in reading and spelling from the beginning.
    Sounds-Write is just about to send a trainer to Zambia to train three lots of teachers there – at no cost to the Zambians, I'm very proud to say.
    If ever you come to UK, let me know and perhaps we can meet up.

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