Memory and Critical Thinking in the Classroom

This article was originally published the ‘Back to School Guide 2019’ published by MumsDelivery, here.


Teaching students to think critically is a primary goal of schooling. By critical thinking, I mean the ability to reasoning dispassionately, solve novel problems, generate new ideas, reason dispassionately and so on. But decades of educational and cognitive science have shown that critical thinking skills can only be learnt when students are equipped with a rich store of facts to draw from. As the cognitive scientist, Daniel T Willingham puts it, “The processes of thinking are intertwined with the content of thought (that is, domain knowledge)”.  

The accumulation of facts requires memorization. You cannot know some fact that you do not remember. Unfortunately, your children are likely to consider this bad news. Internalising quotes, dates, the elements of the periodic table and anything else by rote repetition is painful even for the most dedicated of students. There is, however, a more effective and enjoyable way.

Enter the world of competitive learning and the World Memory Championships. Founded in 1991, the World Memory Championships gathers the world’s fastest learners to compete across 10 disciplines for brainy dominance. Katie Kermode, a high-level competitor, can memorize 97 names and faces in just five minutes. Another, Johannes Mallow, can memorize 132 historic dates just as quickly. To give that some context, they could probably memorize all 29 Australian Prime Ministers in the order in which they were elected in about the time it takes me to tie my shoes. But these athletes aren’t superheroes or savants.  Rather, they use a small set of mnemonic techniques that anyone can learn and apply. In fact, these techniques, which originated in ancient Greece, where central to education until as late as the 17th Century. I’m a memory athlete myself – I’m a three times silver medallist and national record holder – but my main interest is in the application of these techniques in the modern classroom.

Learning even a few simple memory techniques can transform learning into an activity that is imaginative, fun and effective. All the techniques used by memory athletes involve generating creative and unusual associations between visual images. Below are two examples of memory techniques and how they might be used to memorize material encountered in school. I encourage you to read these examples to your kids. Have them close their eyes. Invite them to create colourful ‘mental movies’. Afterwards, see how much they can recall.


Example 1: First 5 elements of the periodic table

To remember the first element, hydrogen, visualize a fire hydrant. ‘Hydrant’ sounds like hydrogen, so is our first mnemonic. Now picture that hydrant being carried into the air by a helium balloon – helium is the second element. Unfortunately, the balloon is popped by a spark from a lithium battery, as lithium is our third element.

Beryllium is the fourth element, so we will imagine our lithium battery bursting into a shower of berries, which are really yum! Here, we are taking advantage of the fact that ‘Beryllium’ sounds like ‘berries really yum’. We are going to use the same strategy to remember that the fifth element is boron. To do so, imagine the berries being turned into a jam which we pour on someone named Ron. Poor Ron! Both ‘pour on’ and ‘poor Ron’ rhyme with ‘boron’ and so allow us to easily recall the name of the element.


Example 2: Foreign language vocabulary

To remember that the Spanish word for rice is ‘arroz’, imagine arrows landing in a bowl of rice.

To remember that the Spanish word for donkey is ‘burro’, imagine a donkey writing at a bureau desk

To remember that the Spanish word for shrimp is ‘gumba’, imagine a giant shrimp dancing around in 10 pairs of shiny black gumboots.
Memory athletes have techniques that allow them to memorize almost anything, but they all come down to creating associations and visual mental images. During one talk, I had the entire audience learn the order of the planets in the solar system using these principles. Mastering memory techniques allows students to take control of their own learning, to conquer difficult material and to develop the skills of critical thinking, all while having fun. Not a bad deal.

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