Tony Buzan believes children are being denied the most important lesson: how to use their brains. Harvey McGavin talks to the man who wants to teach the world to learn
From a distance, as he paces the stage of the Royal Albert Hall in a smart black suit, Tony Buzan's cropped grey hair and piercing eyes make him look like a cross between Frank Sinatra and Paul Daniels. There's certainly something of the showman about Mr Buzan. Every phrase is illustrated with a flourish of the hand, and he has his audience in the palm of it. Today's one-off, free event is billed as Tony Buzan's Magic of the Mind, and he is here to teach 4,000 children aged seven to 11 how to "mind map". "I promise you," he tells them, "that you will go out of here today with a better memory than when you came in."
It's no idle boast. Mr Buzan is the man who, at various times, has coached Olympic rowing teams and chess champions, advised major corporations and government departments, lectured at universities the world over, presented several television series and written more than 80 books. It's a wonder he can recall all the things he's done, but Tony Buzan has a way of remembering things. His technique of mental doodling using pictures and colour owes a lot to good old-fashioned spidergrams, but Mind Maps are his own creation (the phrase itself is trademarked) and, he claims, have the capacity to change lives. "When you can remember things well," he says in the event programme, "you can achieve anything you want."
All that's needed to unlock the potential of our memory is imagination and association, he tells the massed rows of children. "We are all much smarter than we think we are." It's all good motivational stuff and within minutes the children - who've come with their teachers from state and private schools, courtesy of the sponsors Alpha Plus - have memorised the order of the planets in the solar system, by imagining Mercury and Venus as a beautiful woman holding a thermometer and Mars as an angry god carrying a chocolate bar.
He explains the function of the right and left sides of the brain; how the left loves lists, words and numbers; and how the right works with imagination, colour and daydream. "Hands up anyone here who daydreams!" he says. Four thousand hands shoot up. "Everyone. We all daydream. The only difference between us and geniuses is that geniuses direct their daydreams."
If we rely on lists to remember things we are only using one side of our brain, he says. It's like hopping when we could be walking, he explains, bending one leg back flamingo-like to demonstrate. "And Mind Maps," he says, "are like dancing."
He starts to draw a Mind Map on the interactive white board. Starting with a little picture in the middle - of a sun to represent "holiday" - he draws wavy lines like the branches of a tree, which divide into subheadings:
"hotel", "beach", "activities" and so on. Soon, armed with their coloured pens and pads of paper, the enthusiastic throng begin making a Mind Map of "things I love". "You're all geniuses!" he tells them, before leaving the stage to a rousing burst of applause.
Tony Buzan's fascination with latent genius began at the age of seven. "My only interest at the time was nature," he says after the show. "My best friend was a genius. He could identify birds by their flight pattern. But he was dyslexic and when we did a test, according to the classification he was a moron. But I knew he was smarter than me. That raised in my mind the question of what was intelligence - who's smart and who says who's smart?"
Later, at university, feeling as though he was "drowning in bits of information", he went to the library and asked if they had any books on the brain. "The librarian said, 'The medical section is over there'. I said, 'I don't want to operate on it I want to know how to operate it'. 'There are no books on that,' she said."
Working with disadvantaged children as a teacher in the days of the Inner London Education Authority cemented his notion that children who had been written off could flourish under the right conditions. He demonstrated it in last year's BBC series In Search of Genius, in which he coached a group of underachieving pupils at a school in Slough. In a matter of weeks, their powers of recall and academic performance improved significantly.
Educationists who were initially sceptical were won over. But despite the showbiz presentation, there are no tricks to what Tony Buzan does. "It's pretty simple stuff," he says. And fundamental to children's progress, he would argue.
Techniques such as Mind Mapping ought to be on the national curriculum, as they are in Singapore. "Before you teach a child anything you must first teach it how to learn." The Mind Map he used to plan his talk is on a table. Its colour-coded tentacles spread across the page, looking remarkably like a close-up picture of synapses in the brain. These pictorial aides-memoire are the key to unlocking genius, he says. That word is used a lot these days, some would say too much, to describe above-average ability. But it's a term he's happy with. "People think of Mozart as an example of a genius; he was playing music at the age of four.
Every single child on the planet does that. The instrument they play is a lot more complex than a clavichord; it's called the human voice.
"Expectation produces the result it expects. I can't see anybody who has learned a language, which every normal child has, as a failure. When you look at a child you are looking at a prodigy. But they have to be given help - and most kids don't get it."
Buzan Limited instructors are running GCSE and A-level 'Exambusters' and Mind Maps for Kids (aged seven and above) in London this half-term (May 30-June 3). For more details, see www.mind-map.com. Tony Buzan will be presenting seminars at the UK Festival of the Mind in Oxford (August 13-15). Buzan is also planning a UK national schools memory championships.
Contact secretary@worldmemorysports council.com