Pupils' favourite learning tool? Smut

As exams near, pupils rely on mnemonics. But alas, they find them more effective with added filth, says Stephen Petty

Saucy imagery: how smut helps students remember key learning points

With the months before exams now starting to feel more like weeks, many teachers and students will be keenly revisiting the rather quaint, surreal and sometimes professionally lethal world of shortcut memory aids.

Those who dabble in these memory-jogging mnemonics (ironically, I can never quite remember how to spell that word) will be painfully aware of the perils. 


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The dark art of learning key lists and sequences through the recitation of distinctive, memorable sentences can take us into dangerous territory. Whenever we invite students to invent a few new ones, we can be sure of some startlingly explicit suggestions.

“Well, if it helps you to remember it,” we respond tentatively, quietly wondering whether we will still have a job tomorrow and whether the relentless drive to achieve target grades is really worth this sorry descent into muck and filth. 

Lost innocence

It’s all part of a broader descent for mnemonics though. Even some of the oldest and most cherished of memory aids have become similarly tarnished in recent times, with many favourites losing the wholesome innocence of yesteryear. 

GCSE biology students, for example, may still use the visit of good old King Phillip to help them recall the taxonomic rank order (kingdom, phylum, class, etc), but the king’s motives appear to have been changing significantly with the times. 

Back in the 1950s, the received explanation for the royal arrival was that “King Phillip came over for good soup.” This healthy and nutritious intention seems to have lasted until the Swinging Sixties, when someone who was a secondary school student at the time tells me it changed to “King Phillip came over from Germany stoned”.

Since then, things have moved on again. In today’s world, the preferred explanation for the royal visit, as many a student will readily recite, is that he came over for “great sex” or “group sex” – the jury’s out.

Richard of York did...what?

It’s a similar tale with Richard of York, a man who has singlehandedly helped multiple generations to remember the colours of the rainbow. 

It used to be that he “gave battle in vain” – a neat and historically accurate aid. In more recent times, typically, this has been changed in some corners of the playground to “…got buggered in Venice/the Vale of Evesham”. 

Royalty particularly seems to have suffered during this mnemonic fall into the abyss. It used to be that the great mighty King Henry – so helpful in remembering the metric prefixes in size order (giga, mega, kilo, hecto, etc) – used to “die by drinking chocolate milk”. Now, it is “by downing crystal meth”. 

Even the once puritanical world of mathematics has not been spared, with a key rule in trigonometry now beginning with variations on what can happen after “sex on holiday” or after “sex on hard concrete”. 

This sorry descent into sex, drugs and crude innuendo has done absolutely nothing to move mnemonics forward as a learning tool. No one likes to see an aid with so much potential stuck in such a rut. 

Mnemonic pizza party

Mnemonics needs to be saved and moved forwards. One obvious leap for learning, surely, would be to put all the most commonly used mnemonic characters and sayings into the same story, creating a more vivid and more memorable mental picture in students’ heads. 

It would be so much easier, for example, for children to recall Richard of York’s tale (old or new version) if they had some kind of overall context. Why not picture York meeting King Phillip coming over from Germany, whatever either party might be looking for?

Why not bring into their story the most famous mnemonic character of them all, the generous planet-ordering, pizza-making mum? “My very educated mother just served us nine pizzas” – ideal fare, in short, for Phillip and Richard after their drugs, group sex or whatever. 

Meanwhile, students of RE, hoping to memorise the five pillars of Islam, would be automatically triggered into imagining a rather mixed reaction to the mother’s cooking, recalling that “few people cheer for pizza”. 

This is surely a far brighter and more productive way forward for the currently stagnant world of mnemomics. All the key figures and phrases would come together in one truly unforgettable, action-packed tableau. 

Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams's School in Thame, Oxfordshire

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