Working memory is the new intelligence: the ability to hold information in your head and manipulate it mentally. We use this mental workspace not just when doing ‘mental maths’, but also when following instructions and directions, recalling sequences in words, sentences and oral presentations, and retaining information long enough to evaluate and synthesise. Children who do poorly at school may have poor working memory rather than an immutable lack of intelligence.

Working memory is not linked to differences in income, environment, social class or any of the other factors that make traditional IQ tests so unhelpful. Poor working memory is often not routinely identified at school and teachers often describe children with this problem as inattentive, day dreamers or being less able.

Working memory determines how effectively someone can learn and is, according to Tracy Packiam Alloway, ‘the best predictor of academic success’. I had thought this was receptive vocabulary but of course knowledge of a wide variety of words is dependent on the ability to retrieve these words at will. An effective working memory is fundamental to learning.

Dr Alloway is the director of the Centre for Memory and Learning in the Lifespan at Stirling University. I heard her at the Edinburgh Science festival last week and was most impressed with her energy and wide ranging research profile.

People use working memory to stay focused, creatively solve complex problems, respond to questions thoughtfully and recall instructions and crucial information. Those who are better at remembering and working with new information do better in all aspects of learning.

Working memory impacts on every aspect of how our brain works and, as a consequence, every aspect of our lives: from securing our survival, to making savvy business decisions and controlling our emotions. Understanding what we can do to train our working memory can have a tremendous impact on preventing memory loss and delay the signs of dementia.

Alloway states that specific ‘Brain Training’ programmes have no benefit other than enabling people to do brain training exercises more effectively. She has also debunked ‘Brain Gym’ in her extensive research. The BBC programme this week, ‘Bang goes the Theory’ , confirmed these findings in an amusing way. A chimp demonstrated that practise in such games improves performance measurably, with no concomitant surge in overall cognitive function. The chimp didn’t become more intelligent in the generally accepted sense of the word.

Brain Test Britain found that people who play brain training games do get better at those specific brain training games. But this really only proves the old adage of ‘practice makes perfect’. There is no evidence that this transfers to the brain skills measured by our benchmarking tests.

However, all is not lost. Alloway’s research demonstrates that playing video games involving planning and strategy, such as war games, may also train working memory. Games that demand keeping track of past actions and mapping the actions you are about to take (Scrabble, chess, crosswords, Sudoku being prime examples) are likely to have the same effect as their video equivalents in challenging the brain.

Dr Alloway’s team has developed a program, Jungle Memory , that claims to increase the performance of 11 – 14 year olds. After 8 weeks, children in a trial saw ten-point improvements in literacy, numeracy and ‘IQ’ scores. (I wonder why Alloway continues to use this outdated mode of assessment. It is clear that she regards intelligence quotients only as effective indicators of the ability to pass intelligence tests).

Doodling is also highly recommended for recording those ‘mental scribbles’ about information we need to remember and reflect on.

Adopting approaches that encourage note making using symbols, metacognitive strategies for recall, strategic thinking, time for reflection and – crucially – collaborative learning and playing games in the classroom is likely to help those children (estimated at 10% across all age ranges) whose poor working memory affects their progress.

Interesting stuff that should impact upon learning and teaching for all children, but especially those with learning difficulties.