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Memory skills may soon be king
There is more to rote learning than repetition and chanting, explains a teacher and memory champion
"REPEAT AFTER me," the teacher would say just before their pupils — in neat little rows of swing-top desks — would take a deep breath and begin the collective chanting.
"Tyger, tyger burning bright / In the forests of the night / What immortal hand or eye / Could frame thy fearful symmetry?"
For some readers, this will bring back memories of their schooling (while also evoking frustration that "eye" will never, ever rhyme with "symmetry" unless you come from Birmingham). For some it may even describe a lesson today, but for others it will be as alien as the cane.
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. Indeed, it was only those bastions of traditionalism — the English public schools — that appeared to continue the practice of rote learning by chanting in unison.
But when Michael Gove swept into power in 2010, he brought with him a desire to return 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 school pupils from the age of 5 to be able to recite poetry by heart, while the education secretary has demanded that primaries should offer lessons in the classical languages Greek and Latin, as well as in modern foreign languages, including Mandarin.
In English, the programme of study for Year 1 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, 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 before you slap on your mortar board, dust off your book of Latin verbs and get your pupils yelling "amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant" in chorus, 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 School inBrighton, who is a two-time Guinness World Record holder and a former World Memory Champion thanks to his amazing feats of memory.
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.
The teacher, now 40, said 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 that was for the greatest number of playing cards memorised, and as I was into card tricks I thought I would give it a go," Hancock says. He investigated how he would go 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, 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, Hancock trained as a teacher five years ago, and has focused on passing on his knowledge to boost pupils' memory.
The technique, according to Hancock, 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," 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."