The little lists never should be missed

24th October 2003 at 01:00
It all started when I was having a meal in a restaurant in Barcelona on my own and I had forgotten to bring a book. Feeling self-conscious with nothing to do, I noticed the waiter had left his pen beside my dish. On the paper place mat I began writing down as many of Shakespeare's 37 plays as I could remember. I reached a frustrating 21. I went home, looked them up and the next night returned to the same restaurant and just got straight down to writing out the list. And that was that, my life of memorising lists had begun.

My wife, fed up with finding her mail order catalogues and envelopes covered in names of British prime ministers, Oscar-winning films and the Periodic Table, has now banned it. I am now not even allowed to write out a shopping list. She believes, like the post-1960s educational reformists, that rote learning is unimaginative, uncreative and an obsolete skill. Exam boards now give out sheets of formulae, tables and original texts so candidates can focus on reason rather than remembrance. However, if the rigour of learning a quotation or a quotient disappears, the discipline and joys of recollection will also vanish.

Teachers are discouraged from offering this passive form of recollection because it does not fit in with the idea of student-centred learning. Yet memorising facts does not have to represent unrelated rote. It trains the memory and brings another discipline in to the classroom which can be used alongside a more analytical examination of the subject. Lists offer the teacher a starting point to develop a topic and the scaffolding on which students can build ideas. They are fun to learn, easy to assess and form concise resumes. Such learning allows us to claim knowledge and brings a sense of achievement and reassurance, particularly to those students who are less able to cope with subjective reasoning and yet may excel at something they have made the effort to memorise.

Different sorts of lists require different techniques. One easy way of remembering things is to use a bouncing rhythm method, which has enabled most English speakers to recite the alphabet in under 10 seconds. The first seven of the 43 US presidents are: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Adams, Jackson. There is a definite poetry to the list until Van Buren at number eight spoils it. But he forms a natural hurdle before the more jaunty - Harrison, Tyler, Polk, Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce - right on to Bush, Clinton, Bush.

Another popular technique is the mnemonic, a device by which the first letter of a list of things to be remembered is reinvented using a verse or brief saying. The first five elements of the Periodic Table become: happy Henry likes being bored (hydrogen, helium, lithium, beryllium, boron).

Medical personnel who need to recall the order of the 12 cranial nerves have often based it on a humorously erotic mnemonic: "Oh! Oh! Oh! to tickle a ..." (olfactory, optic, oculomotor, trochlear, trigeminal, abducens etc) - it becomes too rude to write down after that, but would certainly help your surgeon if she were trapped without a diagram to hand.

Researchers at the World Memory Championships, which are held each year in London, found that those with superior memories had much more active brain regions associated with location memory and navigation than in normal people attempting the same tasks.

Almost all the champions used the "method of loci" technique in which objects to be remembered were placed on an imaginary pathway that could be retraced when recalling the items in order. The use of this spatial imaging to gain a better recollection of things is linked to a technique used by some stage performers who use a narrative method. For example, in order to remember the short and seemingly unrelated list: eggs, dog, ladder, cup, motorway, the performer may picture two eggs in a dog's mouth as it ascends a ladder to put them in a cup, all leaning out over a motorway.

As for me, still serving my ban, the hair-nibbed pen and special pad (with microscopic line-spacing) are packed away in a drawer.

My favourite list remains those words in the English language which have all the vowels in the right alphabetical order. There are more than 30 of them, including hamamelidaceous which means 'belonging to the witch hazel family'. I have never, admittedly, used it in general conversation. Neither have I used, until now, arenicolous (sand-dwelling) or autecious (surviving on a single host), or been facetiously sacrilegious, but any learning method is ultimately beneficial even at a time when information can be so easily accessed from the internet. Students should be encouraged to remember dates, theories and formulae, not just where to find them.

Jon Bryant is a journalist and former modern languages teacher

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