Can education learn from memory champions?

Three and a half years ago I was given a book, ‘Moonwalking with Einstein’, as a leaving present from a year 6 child who knew me too well.

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It chronicles the journey of Joshua Foer, a journalist who became fascinated in the seemingly inhuman achievements of the world’s greatest memory champions. He met serial competitor Ed Cooke, who was convinced that by learning well known memory techniques, and with high quality practice, Josh himself could become a memory champion. Within a year, Josh was transformed from a journalist (with a distinctly average memory) to the U.S. Memory Champion.

The book explains that we can all vastly improve our ability to memorise by converting information into vivid, personal and most importantly visual images. By characterising inanimate objects and information, and visualising these images in familiar settings – memory palaces – we can recall vastly more information.

I trialled these techniques by memorising a 15-item shopping list that my wife wrote during a long motorway journey. I imagined each item being used in various unusual ways during my mother’s 50th birthday party at my childhood family home. More recently, I was able to memorise my class register by picturing the children doing various unusual things in different places within the school.

Without doubt, these memory techniques (essential skills in the ancient world before the widespread use of reading and writing) are freakishly effective for improving our ability to recall information. This leads to the inevitable questions: should these techniques be being taught in schools? And are there other principles from memory training that have an application within education? The techniques are excellent for memorising vast amounts of information, out of context and without understanding. Is there any place for this kind of learning within our schools?

Research indicates that learning is optimised when it encompasses lower and higher order levels of thinking. Deep learning is enriched by having a knowledge of basic facts and ideas, and vice versa. For example, knowing a range of historical facts enriches deep thinking and learning, which in turn makes information more memorable. Therefore, by giving children a powerful tool for memorising basic information, perhaps their learning outcomes could improve.

I believe that this book highlights the importance of being able to represent concepts and ideas in visual forms. Also, I believe that there are huge benefits from children having a better understanding and experience of how we learn. I have had great fun with my class (and in an assembly) creating memory palaces. I suspect that these techniques could, given consideration about their use, be used to improve learning outcomes for many children.

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