Junior Memory Championship

Working with schools to promote memory skills for kids. 
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Teaching Year 5 & 6 Children
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Jonathan's Blog
News, discoveries and ideas from the fields of neuroscience, education and memory training,
plus information about Jonathan's latest projects and events.  

Lockdown Learning: How to survive and thrive when you’re home-schooling your kids

Thursday, April 23, 2020

School’s out – and staying out, for the foreseeable future. So, for many parents and carers, that means suddenly taking charge of teaching and learning at home. And it’s no mean feat.

In many cases, it involves managing the education of several children at different stages, simultaneously dealing with a variety of other working and caring roles. Added to that, life overall is complicated, tiring and worrying for everyone during lockdown.

As the novelty of being off school fades for the kids, and the work keeps arriving from school, it’s tempting for parents to feel overwhelmed by their new teaching responsibilities.

The schools themselves are doing their best to supply appropriate work, along with the support that families need to complete it. And most parents are doing everything they can to make home learning work. But it’s a challenge, and it won’t get any easier as the weeks – and maybe even months – roll by.

Be Reasonable!
As a former teacher (and current parent!) I think that we all have to be realistic. Yes, teachers should send home activities, so that no family is stuck for ideas, and children have useful things to get on with. Families, meanwhile, also have to do their best, by giving some structure to their children’s day, setting aside space to study, and offering as much time and support as they can.

But parents are stretched, home is full of distractions, and learning activities need to fit into real life if they’re going to be of any use. It’s in no one’s interest for parents to buckle under the pressure to be full-time leaders of learning, or for children to battle with tasks that they don’t enjoy and can’t do without help.

Easy Wins
One way to make things a bit easier is to build learning into what’s already going on at home. Whether or not you also attempt to teach “lessons”, or help with specific tasks set by school, as a parent you can make almost anything into a learning experience – if you use it to stretch children’s learning skills.

Yes, the content of any learning activity is significant. Of course it’s good to amass knowledge and specific skills. But just as important is how any activity makes a child feel about learning – and how it impacts their ability to learn in the future.

After all, everything we do involves learning in some way, as we call on different types of memories, and add new ones to the collection. So, whatever you’re doing, talking about, or trying to learn, use it as an opportunity to look at learning itself – to build learning skills that will help with everything.

Take cooking, for example. You’re doing it anyway, so get your children to help. Reading the recipe is good literacy practice. There’s practical maths in there as you work out the measurements, adjust them to your family’s needs, and weigh out all the ingredients. You’re honing key D.T. skills as you slice, peel and mash; testing your science skills and knowledge as you cook; and even exercising your artistic flair as you plate up.

But you can also use cooking to stretch memory and learning skills. That way, without much extra effort on your part, it becomes an educational activity of the very highest quality.

Thinking About Thinking
See if your child remembers which country this dish comes from. Can they name any of the ingredients in other languages? (And if so, why do some of them stick in their mind?) Do they remember eating this meal on holiday? And if they do, what other memories does it bring back? Which of the ingredients has the most familiar smell – and why? Which bits of the instructions are people most likely to forget (and how can we make sure that we don’t?).

And the two most important questions, whatever you’re doing: “What can we learn from this?”; and, “What can we do to make sure that we remember it?”

By asking those questions, you move into the zone of metacognition – “thinking about thinking”.

Metacognition has been shown to have an incredibly powerful impact on learning.

As part of an everyday activity, it gets you swapping clever ways to remember things – such as using rhymes, thinking up reminder images, or turning the initials of words into silly sentences. It’s particularly good when people of different ages share their approaches, and describe what they find hard or easy to remember.

So see if you can create a funny story to remember the ingredients you need for your dish. Talk about whether it gets easier to recall a recipe when you’ve followed it a few times. Does it help to organize the ingredients in a particular way? How much does muscle memory come into play? Why does Grandma remember so many recipes from her childhood… ?

Chat – and Challenge
Then try the same metacognitive approach when you’re gardening, doing an online P.E. session together, or even just unloading the shopping. Ask questions like: Why is this bit easy/hard to remember? Why do some people find learning this easier that others? What sort of things is your brain doing during this activity? What could we try now to make it easier to remember later on?

As well as sharing ideas about learning, look for easy opportunities to get competitive about it. Kids love a challenge, and they may well surprise you with how much they can remember when they’re incentivized to show off!

“How many of the ingredients from last night’s meal can you remember?”

“Name five flowers we saw in the garden yesterday”.

“Can we do all of yesterday’s P.E. moves again – from memory?”

“I bet I can name more items in our shopping delivery that you!”

Talking about learning, sharing techniques for doing it, and testing and challenging your skills, will all pay dividends in the long-run – for everyone. It’s what good teachers are doing all the time, so your kids will recognize it, and it will help them to keep their learning skills sharp, ready for when in-school lessons (and assessments and tests!) resume. The more they can practise effective memory techniques now, the more confident they’ll feel to learn well in any subject at school.

Life-Long Learning
The adults in the family will also benefit from this mental exercise. However much you normally bemoan your forgetfulness, it’s always a good confidence booster to see what you do remember – both by reaching into your long-term memories stores, and by using your short-term memory to stay on top of daily life.

And it’s a great way to keep your mind sharp, as you seize opportunities to stretch a wide range of mental skills, and challenge yourself to explore new ways to learn.

By doing so, you’ll model a very positive attitude to the youngsters around you. And when they do eventually go back to school, they’ll be more engaged, effective and excited learners than ever.

You don’t always have to “do learning”, of course. We’re likely to be in lockdown for a while, and we all need to pace ourselves. Often you can just enjoy a shared activity for the fun of it.

Let’s make the most of any chances we get to slow down, talk, laugh, and just be together.

But by the same token, don’t miss out on easy wins. Keep your eyes open for those memorable moments within everyday family life that can – if you approach them in the right way – generate some of the most worthwhile learning of all.

Jonathan Hancock is Founder of The Junior Memory Championship, which helps schools to deliver training in memory and learning skills. This year, teachers are being encouraged to use the JMC training sessions and lesson plans as part of their home-learning provision. For the competition itself, the children will take a series of online memory tests, from which this year’s finalists will be selected. The Final itself, in June, will also be held online, when the new Junior Memory Champion will be announced.

Are We Wasting Learning on the Young

Monday, June 17, 2019
I took my nine-year-old son to a birthday party last week, and while I was there I got talking to two other parents. They both told me about something new and exciting that was happening in their lives.

One of them, a dad of two girls, is in the process of changing careers, and he said he'd recently started sampling online learning for the first time. The other, a busy mum and business owner, had been keen to pick up new skills to help her at work, so she'd begun exploring a range of evening classes and web-based tools. 

They both said how much they were enjoying educating themselves as adults.  And they both said that this was in stark contrast to the way they'd felt at school.

I wasn't surprised. As someone who writes resources for Mind Tools.  Mind Tools, one of the world's leading publishers of online learning for adults, I'm very aware of the power of independent, self-directed learning, tailored to individuals' needs – and designed to fit into the flow of daily life. When people see the direct benefits of picking up relevant new knowledge and skills, and have the means to do it on their own terms, powerful learning happens – and keeps happening.

I strongly believe that we need to remember this when we're working out how to teach our kids.  If we want them to be excited about learning, and motivated to do it now, we need to give children some of the opportunities that make many adults such passionate learners. If we don't, much of the effort spent trying to get them to learn will go to waste.

It's an issue we've worked hard to address with the Junior Memory Championship, which has just launched for its 12th year. We give teachers a set of rich activities to use in class, to show their children how to use creative memory techniques that can take their education to the next level. Everything's designed to be positive, challenging and fun, giving the kids effective strategies for concentrating, engaging, and learning well in every lesson.

Crucially, we show them how to learn in ways that suit them, incorporating their own personalities, interests and experiences. We want them to be inspired to learn more in their leisure time, too: pursuing their hobbies, socializing, travelling – in short, getting into the best learning habits as early as possible, and seeing the benefits now

Teachers tell us it's working. And the pupils we meet every year at the final seem genuinely excited by what they've learned about learning – and about their own potential – through their involvement in the JMC.

They know how to use age-old memory techniques to think in pictures, tell memorable stories, and go on journeys in their imagination, to help them learn anything and everything with confidence. They know how to absorb the information they're given at school, but they're also inspired to go further in the subjects they're particularly passionate about – to their own time scale, and on their own terms.

My two friends at the party discussed their new excitement with learning in very similar ways. They both said how much they wished they'd known that learning could be this useful and fun back when they were at school.

When kids are switched on to learning, they have such ambition and drive. They seek out opportunities to learn amid everything else they're doing, inspired by the value they see in it for themselves. I can't wait to see how our new batch of JMC competitors turn memory skills to their advantage.

There's so much energy in that brand of practical, personalized, passionate learning. It would be a crime to let it go to waste!

Jonathan Hancock is the Founder of the
Junior Memory Championship, which is now enrolling schools for the 2019/2020 competition.
Jonathan's latest book is The Study Book, a complete guide to successful study at university, published in June 2019 by John Murray
Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @J_B_Hancock

Snap Judgements: how photographs are changing our memories

Monday, July 23, 2018
Almost all of us now carry a camera at all times - inside the smart phone that also lets us store, view, edit and share practically limitless photographic evidence of our experiences. Look around you at every tourist site, music concert, sports fixture or social gathering and you'll see people of all ages capturing the moment on camera. Quite often, they'll actually be photographing themselves: 'proof' that they were there, with the scene behind them. They don't even need to turn around and take in the Taj Mahal or Madonna or the Olympics or whatever else it is - because they'll have in on camera, to look at later, maybe ...

This has to be having an impact on the way we experience the world, and how we remember these key times in our life. There's increasing evidence that it could actually be changing the way our brains work altogether, with particular implications for children's development.

We're used to debating young people's behaviour with phones in terms of internet safety, cyber-bullying, gaming addiction, sleep disruption ... but have parents and teachers considered the impact that phone cameras may be having on thinking, remembering and learning?

A recent study has demonstrated how much less people remembered about an experience when they were photographing it. After visiting a beautiful, historic church, volunteers who'd been instructed to take pictures of their tour proved to have much weaker memories of what they'd seen and heard that those who'd not been allowed to take in cameras. 

Brian Resnick explores this and other related findings in a very accessible article for Vox.com, drawing together key points from various research perspectives, including:

When people know that there's technology available to 'remember' something, they remember less for themselves. So just having a phone camera in sight - sitting on a desk nearby, for example - can reduce our mental engagement with the moment at hand and hamper our recall.

Using a camera distracts attention and can get in the way of our in-built ability to learn. 

Looking through a camera lens can narrow our viewpoint and make us take in much less of the overall experience.

People who photograph social events can easily find themselves remembering from a 'third-person' perspective, missing out on layers of emotional resonance - as if they weren't actually there at the time.

We need to acknowledge the benefits of having photographs to look back at, helping to re-engage with aspects of an experience: thinking about it, discussing it, strengthening long-term recall by repetition. And obviously there's great pleasure in enjoying a captured moment again at leisure and sharing it with others. But how many photographs are never actually looked, not even once? Meanwhile, has the act of taking them made the experience less memorable?

Many primary-age children now have phones and use them to take photographs of anything and everything, relying less and less in their memory skills to store their experiences. Teachers may well be able to capitalise on this, encouraging pupils to take mental 'snapshots' of spellings or equations, or maybe getting them to imagine what photographs of famous historical events might have looked like. Familiarity with visual technologies and techniques can boost learners' ability to explore ideas in their imagination and create the sort of powerful pictures that have always been essential to memory techniques. Cameras may well be expanding our visual memories in a very useful way.

But teachers also need to be alert to the limiting effects of our photographic habits, which threaten attention, engagement, emotional impact, and so many other key elements of successful memory and learning.

As Brian Resnick asks in his article, how much of our memory do we really want to offload to technology? We need to be careful that cameras don't distract children and all of us - from the most powerful learning opportunities of all.       


Dealing With Distractions: when memories get in the way

Wednesday, June 27, 2018
As a teacher, how do you help a child who's struggling to get on with their work because of a troubling memory? Maybe they're thinking about a sad story from the news that day, an incident that upset them at break-time, a pet that died recently – or an even bigger trauma in their past.

During my career in the classroom I can remember many times when negative memories were disrupting children's thinking and intruding on their learning. I used a range of strategies in response, at times acknowledging the significance of such memories and letting a child talk, reflect, or just do something else until they were ready to engage with learning again; and at other times doing my best to distract them, engage them in activities that might divert their attention, give them a break from their memories, 'cheer them up'.

Although I believed strongly that negative memories must serve a purpose, and certainly shouldn't be repressed long term, I also knew that it was my job to settle pupils to the task of learning. In the process, whether helping them to put a memory into perspective, replace it with a different focus, or just leave it to be attended to later on, I tried to show children that they could take a degree of control over their thinking. It was often possible to keep negative memories at bay long enough for them to engage with the learning on offer.

There was always a tension, though: between the instinct to go into the memory, engaging with the source of the problem there and then; and the urge to take the child out of their recollections and into other modes of thinking as quickly as possible.

But now a clear, single strategy may be on offer, thanks to a University of Illinois study that analyses the impact of different approaches to troublesome memories.

As reported by Science Daily online, the researchers found that when negative memories intrude, focusing on factual, contextual details, rather than on the emotions involved, can be an effective way of reducing disruption to thinking and learning. The mental energy that is taken up when someone is absorbed by an emotionally rich memory can be reclaimed when those emotions are stripped back.

In the study, published in full in the journal Cerebral Cortex, the team gathered details of a variety of different emotional memories from a group of volunteers. They then gave their subjects a set of cognitive memory tasks to perform, based on some of the negative memories each person had revealed. During these tests, half the participants were instructed to focus on the emotional aspects of their memories, while the other half were told to think instead about contextual details: where the event happened, the date, names of people involved, clothes they were wearing ...

And the results? The 'emotional thinkers' had a significantly lower performance in the cognitive aspect of the tests, relative to a control task, than the 'contextual thinkers'. Brain scans revealed that subjects who focused on emotions experienced a shift in brain activity away from functions such as reasoning and memory, while the opposite happened with those who were thinking about facts. Focusing on the context actually increased both the level of activity and strength of communication within areas of the brain associated with 'executive function' – which we know plays such a vital role in educational activities.

The Illinois psychologists were keen to point out that suppressing or stifling memories has been linked to anxiety and depression – and categorically not what they were doing. Instead, the successful strategy in their experiment involved sticking with a memory, but focusing on different aspects of it – factual details, rather than emotions – in order to retain cognitive power and keep the brain switched on to new learning.
So, it could be as simple as telling a child to describe a memory to you in a factual way rather than dwelling on all the emotional details, for now, in order to prevent difficult recollections from hampering their learning. Later on, other processes can be used to address the memory properly and process it more deeply, but in the meantime, learning can continue.

For me, this goes a long way to resolving the tension between 'focusing' and 'distracting', 'in' or 'out' of a troubling memory. You're acknowledging the significance of a remembered experience, and the child doesn't have to push it aside; but, while they're thinking about it, focusing on the facts involved helps them to preserve enough processing power to engage with the new learning you have to offer. 

What do you think? Let me know whether you can see this technique helping some of the children you work with. If it's an issue you've come across often, maybe there are other strategies you've used, to free learners from disruptive memories. And could the 'Illinois' method even help teachers, when difficult memories threaten to intrude on their thinking, performance and wellbeing?

I'd love to receive your comments; and, to read the full Science Daily report, including information about accessing the study itself, please access the link below. 


Learning and Memory Under Stress: Implications for the Classroom

Monday, June 18, 2018
"Stress has far reaching consequences on our ability to learn and remember, with major implications for educational settings." So says this excellent review article in Science of Learning, which contains some very powerful advice for teachers keen to help their students remember well. The authors, Susanne Vogel and Lars Schwabe, explain the complex interplay between emotion and learning, and suggest a number of things to try out in school. 
Stress clearly changes learning processes – but not always for the worse. 'Stress', in the terms of this article, could be fairly mild emotional engagement, or a raising of the importance of a learning task, triggering certain chemical responses. Generally, we know that 'emotional' material is more memorable than 'neutral' material, and the authors provide scientific backing to teachers who make information as emotionally engaging and relevant to their students' experience as possible – as that's likely to make it more memorable. 
But while certain sorts of 'stress' response around the time of learning can strengthen memory, there's also a clear warning here about the negative impact of stress on recall, and on the brain's ability to update and augment information. It also seems that stress changes our approach to learning, making us much more dependent on instinctive, 'habitual' strategies rather than well-thought-out learning techniques.
So, when it comes to recall-based exams in particular, as well as the ongoing development of learning within a subject, teachers need to be extremely alert to the effects of stress.
Along with remaining aware of their students' emotional needs (and, increasingly, schools are having to support children with significant stress in their past and present) this article suggests that teachers prioritise practical exam preparation, making sure that students are as comfortable and un-stressed as possible about the situation, and familiar with the setting and requirements. It also emphasises the importance of making students themselves aware of the impact that emotions can have on their learning – both positive and negative – to help them shape an effective approach of their own.  
I'd be very interested to hear about your techniques for helping children and young people cope with different sorts of stress, particularly around recall tasks like exams, and whether you think it's possible to 'raise the stakes' at key moments in order to boost alertness and emotional engagement and tap into the positive effects on memory.
Please send me your comments – and you can read the full article at:


Working Memory Predicts Learning Success

Monday, June 04, 2018
This assertion, from the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, is the first of a series of powerful quotations on the website of Tracey Packiam Alloway, one of the world's authorities on working memory. Alloway, who has worked closely with Sue Gathercole in the past, makes a very persuasive case for the value of memory research, including the simple, powerful point that 'Working Memory CAN be trained' (Journal of Interactive Learning Research).


Recommended reading: 'Understanding Working Memory', by Tracey Packiam Alloway and Ross G. Alloway, Sage Publications Ltd, 2014.
Key quote: 'It is hard to conceive of a classroom activity that does not involve working memory – our ability to work with information. In fact, it would be impossible for students to learn without working memory. From following instructions to reading a sentence, from sounding out an unfamiliar word to calculating a math problem, nearly everything a student does in the classroom requires working with information'.

Getting Working Memory Working

Monday, June 04, 2018
'Poor working memory skills are relatively commonplace in childhood, and have a substantial advance impact on children’s learning… ' So begins Susan Gathercole's Presidents' Award Lecture to the British Psychological Society's Annual Conference, which is still a very valuable message about the need to identify and support children with poor working memory. As well as explaining the significant difficulties that working memory problems can cause, she also presents plenty of very hopeful possibilities for memory improvement, directing teachers and others to 'the exciting opportunities that cognitive approaches to learning can bring'.

Recommended reading: 'Working Memory and Learning: a practical guide for teachers', by Susan Gathercole and Tracey Packiam Alloway, Paul Chapman publishing, 2008.


Key quote: 'Children's abilities to learn in key areas such as reading and mathematics are highly predictable from their scores on working memory tests … These links between working memory and learning ability in childhood seem to us to be important not only for cognitive theory, but also for educational practice'.

Fit to Learn

Monday, May 28, 2018
Research from Brown University in the US has established clear links between childhood obesity and weakened memory skills. As more and more schools introduce physical health initiatives – with children and their families – in a bid to improve learning outcomes, this study provides powerful evidence about the correlation between obesity and deficits in working memory, reasoning, and perhaps wider aspects of thinking and learning.

Full article

Sleep Well

Monday, May 28, 2018
Teachers are well aware of the impact that poor sleep can have on students' learning. Now a study from Northwestern University in the US has confirmed the important role sleep plays in stabilising new memories and embedding long-term learning, identifying particularly significant brain-wave patterns. It seems we need to give our brains both the quality and quantity of sleep it needs to carry out key learning processes.

The study also highlights the 'segregating' processes that go on within memory encoding, suggesting that teachers should also aim to make clear distinctions between different areas of learning, rather than letting them overlap and become harder to lay down as long-term memories.

Full article

Run to Remember

Thursday, May 24, 2018
This month's Runner's World magazine features some interesting research about the beneficial effects of running on memory – particularly for people suffering from work-related stress. It seems that running can play a really important part in reducing the damage done to memory by the sort of stress that so many people experience every day.

The findings come from a study reported in the journal Neurobiology of Learning and Memory. Scientists at Brigham Young University in Utah, USA, found that strenuous exercise can strengthen the links between neurons: connections that are vital for successful long-term learning.

High levels of stress are known to have a negative impact on the hippocampus, a part of the brain that has a key role in transferring short-term memories to long-term storage through a process known as long term potentiation (LTP). Stress has been shown to hamper LTP; but, in this study, when exercise co-occurred with stress, LTP remained at a normal level. Running mitigated the damage that stress would otherwise have caused to the strengthening of mental connections and the laying down of lasting memories.

Jeff Edwards, Associate Professor of Physiology and Developmental Biology at BYU, said: "It’s empowering to know that we can combat the negative impacts of stress on our brains just by getting out and running.”

Full paper

Challenging Genius

Thursday, May 24, 2018
'Chid Genius', the popular Channel 4 series about gifted children and their families, is coming back for its sixth series, and I'm delighted to be on board once again. Year after year this programme has explored the characters, behaviours and family dynamics of some truly fascinating and highly able children, using a range of challenges to put their memory and learning skills to the test.

Watch previous episodes and receive news of the new series of 'Child Genius'

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