Memory skills may soon be king

23rd November 2012 at 00:00
There is more to rote learning than repetition and chanting, explains a teacher and memory champion. Richard Vaughan reports

"Repeat after me," the teacher would say just before the pupils - in neat little rows of swing-top desks - would take a deep breath and begin the collective chanting.

"Tyger, tyger burning brightIn the forests of the nightWhat immortal hand or eyeCould frame thy fearful symmetry?"

A few short years ago, the days of classes obediently reciting works from England's literary canon seemed mostly to have gone the way of William Blake.

But when education secretary Michael Gove swept into power at Westminster in 2010, he brought with him a desire to return English schools to those days, and in June his desires were laid out in draft proposals for a new primary curriculum.

The changes call for all primary pupils from the age of 5 to be able to recite poetry by heart, and for all primary schools to offer lessons in the classical languages Greek and Latin, as well as modern languages.

In English, the programme of study for Year 1 (P1) sets out plans for five-year-olds to be taught poetry while starting to learn basic poems and taking part in recitals.

By Year 2 (P2), pupils will be expected to "build up a repertoire of poems learnt by heart and recite some of these, with appropriate intonation to make the meaning clear".

But there may be better, more engaging ways to approach rote learning. One teacher who knows this better than most is Jonathan Hancock, deputy head at St Mary's Catholic Primary in Brighton, who is a two-time Guinness World Record holder and former World Memory Champion.

Mr Hancock has since used his powers of recollection to establish the Junior Memory Championship, after the Learning Skills Foundation approached him to create a programme and competition that could be used by schools to boost their pupils' powers of concentration and teach them invaluable memory skills.

Now 40, he first became interested in testing his memory when still at school. He was a fan of the Guinness World Records books, as well as the popular television programme Record Breakers, and so made a bet with a friend to see if he could set his own world record.

"I came across a world record for the greatest number of playing cards memorised, and as I was into card tricks I thought I would give it a go," Mr Hancock says.

He investigated how he would set about the challenge, and stumbled across memory techniques that would give him a clever way of remembering each playing card.

"The method said to attribute a memorable person or character to each card, so the ace of hearts would be Elvis Presley, your teacher or Mickey Mouse," he says. "You then create a story from each of the characters to help you remember which cards will come next in the sequence."

At the age of 16, Mr Hancock set the record for memorising six shuffled packs of cards, 312 in total; he then broke the record for memorising cards in the fastest time.

Unsurprisingly, his newly discovered powers helped him with his schoolwork and he eventually went on to study English at the University of Oxford, achieving a first-class honours degree thanks to his ability to memorise 50 essays.

After a career in radio and as an author of more than a dozen books on how to boost one's memory, Mr Hancock trained as a teacher five years ago, and has focused on passing on his knowledge to boost pupils' memory.

Whole-brain thinking

The technique, he says, was used by the ancient Greeks and later the Romans, who would assign pictures to things and then construct a mental journey or place the pictures in an imaginary building to help them remember.

"People with the best memories usually assign pictures to things that are hard to remember, particularly abstract things such as numbers, poems that are difficult to understand or equations," Mr Hancock says. "Once you have assigned your pictures to things, you can then bring in colour and texture, linking pictures together to create your own memory journey."

The technique works particularly well among primary pupils, as young children are more inclined to think in images. The method draws on the creative side of children's brains as well as exercising the logical side, bringing about what Mr Hancock calls "whole-brain thinking".

But he is quick to point out that learning memory skills does not just amount to pupils being able to store information without knowing how to use it. Focusing the mind on remembering things eventually forces them to understand how things work.

"There is no point in teaching pupils lots of interesting things if they don't know how and why they are being taught them," he says. "This is a big element of teaching. If I were to teach my pupils this technique to remember something in maths, they would begin to use it and pick it up quickly, but before long they can't remember the techniques - they just know how to do it."

Mr Hancock takes his pupils on a memory journey that could be set anywhere: a computer-game landscape, for instance. The pupils will then attribute a picture to the first line of the poem, and from there build up a stack of knowledge.

One teacher who is well versed in these methods is Ashley Winters, head of Lodge Farm Primary in the West Midlands. He has used the techniques and taught the memory skills at two very different schools and seen impressive results at both, with his previous school producing two Junior Memory Championship winners.

"I moved from a school with students with high aspirations coming from high-performing families to one in an area with high deprivation and very low aspirations," Mr Winters says. "I brought this programme with me and in its first year we had one of our students come third nationally."

The take-up was relatively slow at Lodge Farm, says Mr Winters. But a club was set up to encourage children to try to boost their memories and by doing so improve their learning.

The club's subsequent success has led to it being incorporated into planning, preparation and assessment (PPA) sessions at the school, and Mr Winters says the benefits are unparalleled.

"Every single child who took part made greater progress in Year 6 (P6) than they did in Year 5 (P5)," he says. "And 100 per cent of the pupils made more than expected progress, and 100 per cent were higher than what was expected of them nationally.

"All the children made at least four average point score (APS) progress, while 80 per cent of them made more than four APS progress and that is across reading, writing and maths," he says.

While the head is in favour of rote learning, he does not necessarily agree with Mr Gove's interpretation of what that actually means.

"Number bonds is a type of rote learning, but he may not think of it like that," Mr Winters says. "We make rote learning fun with a variety of different resources and a wealth of information."

But he agrees with the essence of what is achieved through learning by rote, and that children should be able to access information off the top of their heads rather than at the tap of a computer key.

"Pupils could Google everything and just get the answer they need, but you can't rely on that and you must have the basics," Mr Winters says.

"We have to prepare these children for jobs that haven't even been invented yet, so having a firm grasp of the basics is essential. It is our job to pass on to the generation below us the skills that will keep this country and the world economy going, and the essence behind all that is rote learning, which is still very much needed."


First used by the Romans and ancient Greeks, the method of loci is said to be employed by nine out of 10 memory champions and is promoted by Jonathan Hancock as his favourite technique.

The ancient Greeks worshipped memory, naming a goddess after it in the form of Mnemosyne, which is where the word mnemonic comes from.

Greek senators would often employ the method of loci to enable them to absorb and regurgitate swathes of information when giving speeches without notes.

Often referred to as a "memory palace" or the "journey method", the method of loci enables people to attribute images to a list of Shakespeare plays, a deck of cards or a shopping list and then, as they journey through their "palace", embark on a narrative using the images created.

The technique is said to have been the brainchild of a Roman called Simonides who stepped out of a banquet right at the moment the building collapsed, killing all the other guests inside.

He realised that he was able to remember exactly where each guest had been sitting, and so identify the otherwise unidentifiable remains of the unfortunate diners.


- Memories love pictures, so think in pictures.

- Picture historical events, scientific experiments or dramatic scenes in books.

- Exaggerate the pictures - make them funny, violent or weird and you will be amazed at how well they activate your memory.

- Create connections to make it easier.

- Link new ideas with things you already know. Compare facts and figures you want to learn with those stored in your brain.

- Create your own connections by thinking up scenes that link the "picture clues" you design. A story is a powerful way to learn long lists, each item linking with the next to guide your brain through all the important memories.

- Don't just re-read a list: invent pictures, link them in a story and take your learning to a new level.

- Personalise it - it's easier to remember things that have happened to you.

- If you're learning history, imagine how it would feel if you were in the battle.

- In geography, imagine a journey to a foreign land and think what it would be like for you.

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