Meeting my new class of year 5s last week, I was delighted to see that the Guinness Book of Records is as popular as ever. It's a few years now since my name was in there, but the children still love to look me up and talk about what I did, which gives me the perfect opportunity to excite them about their own memory skills. I'll show them a party trick or two, but what I really love is revealing the secrets, and showing the children how they can do some amazing things themselves.
I was 16 when I first came across memory techniques; ancient skills and systems for making it easier to learn and remember. They'd been around for centuries and used by some of history's great thinkers and achievers, but for some reason no-one had ever told me about them. Approaching my GCSEs, I was being given plenty of information to learn, but no real strategies for doing so, until I stumbled on a few of my own, looking for a way to memorise playing cards and win a bet with some friends. I quickly realised that what I'd found was actually an approach to learning that worked for anything at all. Almost overnight it changed my whole experience of school.
It was like getting superhero powers: I was Memo-Man. I could learn words, numbers, facts, lists, names, ideas, essays, skills. All because I knew a few simple tricks of the mind – and I was determined enough to put them into action.
By the time I'd mastered cards, broken a world record (a sequence of 312 cards initially, six packs, but I would go on to memorise 40 packs of cards) and won my bet, I also had a set of skills that proved priceless throughout school, college and university. I could take a really strategic approach to everything I wanted to remember, saving myself time and energy, going into exams with new-found confidence, and pushing myself to discover, understand and remember more and more.
The best memory techniques are simple but remarkably powerful. They use mental imagery to turn forgettable information into something that's much more likely to stick in your mind. You invent pictures to represent the things you want to know, funny, colourful, energetic images that catch hold in your memory, then connect them together into scenes and stories that are intrinsically memorable. You're using all the creative aspects of your thinking at the same time as your powers of logical organisation: wild imagination on one hand, but also controlled, solid structure on the other. Your whole brain comes to life in a learning experience that's fun and challenging – and it really works, from the first time you show a class how to memorise a list of random words.
You have fun together coming up with a collection of objects, places, celebrities, TV shows. Then get them started on a vivid story that links all the items in a memorable way. Maybe the football bounces onto an ice-cream cone being held by Mickey Mouse, which splats onto the shoe of a passing astronaut whose helmet is actually a TV screen showing a programme about clowns. Suddenly they can all remember football, ice-cream, Mickey Mouse, shoe, astronaut, TV, clown and any list you give them. Words transformed into a story that links the first word to the second, the second to the third, through 20 words, 30, 50, forwards, backwards, inside out. I love seeing their excitement at doing something they thought would be impossible and enjoying doing it, thinking up their own funny imagery and challenging each other to remember more.
You quickly show them how to learn useful lists: facts and ideas from across the curriculum, organised as memorable imagery in scenes and stories or even arranged around familiar buildings and journeys. It's how the Ancient Greeks used to learn, and it's an approach that still works brilliantly today. I've seen the impact of this energetic, whole-brain approach on children's overall attitude, focus, communication, imagination, organisation and it seems such an obvious skill to weave into every child's education. Get them into the right habits early and these memory methods could have a major influence on their future success.
As teachers we can always be on the lookout for ways to use memorable images and connections. As well as showing the children actual pictures and films, why not help them to form their own personal images to represent the things they need to know; vocabulary, equations, dates, names, processes – even simple instructions? It's how memory works and how even very young children can make their memory work.
Teach students practical memory methods. Encourage them to make their own connections and follow memory chains. Challenge them to invent their own systems for the things they really want to recall. Get them using the power of their imagination, utilising all their senses, putting themselves into unforgettable adventures and journeys of the mind – and seeing just how powerful their creative, controlled, confident memory can be.
Jonathan Hancock was still at school when he broke his first Guinness world record – for memorising playing cards. He used the same memory skills to help him gain a first from Oxford University and become the inaugural World Student Memory Champion before achieving the title of World Memory Champion. He has since written 15 books about memory and learning, for adults and children, and now works as a primary school teacher in Brighton. Read more of Jonathan's tips for using memory in your classroom here. Teachers can also sign up to take part in this year's Junior Memory Championship, sponsored by the Learning Skills Foundation.