Originally published in The Age (print and online February 15 2016)
It’s 35 degrees outside but high in an RMIT University tower on Swanston Street, the air is chilled to just 19 – brain temperature. Around the room, nine people sit bent over their desks. Most wear noise-cancelling headphones. No one speaks. This is the second day of the 2015 Australian Memory Championships and it’s crunch time.
In one final lightning round, the top memorisers in the country are going head to head for the tournament title –including year nine students Rory-Clay Edwards and Aviv Dolan of Upwey High School.
They’re nervous, both newcomers to the world of memory sports. But already, the pair have broken three national records between them.
A few desks away sits their teacher Dan Mayes, another first time competitor and head of Upwey High’s “Memory Club”. By the day’s end, he will have placed third overall in Australia – after memorising the order of a shuffled deck of cards in less than three minutes.
While Mayes and his students are quick to assure they are not blessed with extraordinary abilities – no photographic memories, genius IQs or superpowers to report –, they do share a secret. It was the same secret of Aristotle in Ancient Greece and of Thomas Aquinas in the Middle Ages. A 2,500-year-old system of encoding information into memory using visual imagery known as mnemonics or the art of memory.
Today, it has survived almost exclusively as the sport of “memory athletes” but, thanks to Mayes, both Edwards and Dolan are among the first people to learn mnemonics in an Australian classroom. And now, with a world-first trial of the techniques being carried out in schools this year by host of the tournament and former silver medallist, Daniel Kilov, they won’t be the last.
For Kilov, it began last August with teachers’ boot camp – the memory athlete was flown to Darwin to train nine handpicked educators at the invitation of occupational therapist, Greg Wills.
After more than 30 years working in Australian classrooms, it had been the sight of a little girl racing off to her principal’s office in excitement that convinced Wills it was time for a revolution in education. The girl had fetal alcohol syndrome and, using Kilov’s techniques, she had just memorised ten words for the first time in her life.
“She was so delighted,” Wills says. “This was a student who would forget spelling words the day after she learned them, who was always in trouble, and three weeks later, she still remembered them.”
In consultation with Kilov, Wills is now coordinating four research projects in mnemonics across four different schools in the Northern Territory.
“It’s painfully apparent to everyone that there is a profound problem in education,” Kilov says. “If you look at what the science says, about how we learn best using methods that are visual, colourful and diverse, and then look at the way we actually teach kids with repetitive, black and white note taking, it’s the exact opposite of everything we know about how to learn effectively.”
And it’s a problem that haunted Kilov throughout his own schooling. Ten years ago, the 27-year-old PHD candidate could barely remember to bring his books to class.
But, in 2011, Australian memory champion Tansel Ali took Kilov under his wing for intensive mnemonic training. Within six weeks, Kilov was competing by his side at the Australian Memory Championships.
Having funded his own successful schools program in 2014, the School Mind Games, Ali shares Kilov’s passion for “disrupting” traditional education models.
“Rote learning is brute force,” Ali says. “It’s moving information from your short-term memory to your long-term memory by repeating it over and over. But the short-term memory isn’t designed for loads of information, it’s designed so we know where we parked the car.”
By contrast, he says, mnemonics play to the brain’s strengths. Difficult to remember information such as numbers and names can be converted into visual or spatial memories – things the brain loves to learn – by making up stories and images to go along with them.
“It’s fun,” says Monash University student Sophie Tversky. She’s just finished explaining how she remembered the name of a particular criminal case by imagining a giant chicken schnitzel holding a knife in her kitchen.
“The case was called Snatzel, which sounded like schnitzel to me,” Tversky says. “These days, I’m always giggling at my notes.”
Two years ago, Tversky trained for a month under Kilov and last year she saw her hard work pay off – sitting a gruelling open book law exam closed book.
“My friends were giving me weird looks because I’d left my notes under the table but I could see all the material clearly.”
While both Kilov and Ali are adamant anyone can learn mnemonic techniques, from law students to children with intellectual disabilities, Professor John Sutton, the world expert on the philosophy of memory at Macquarie University, is still not convinced.
“I think the current challenges about memory in the classroom are not quite the ones those techniques would solve,” Sutton says. “My hunch is that they’re not as easy and workable for everybody.”
At Upwey High, Mayes, a former psychology teacher, is still regularly contacted by former students benefiting from their early memory training. But, he agrees that mastering the techniques is often up to the individual.
“I teach mnemonics every week to about 20 kids,” Mayes says. “The difference with Rory and Aviv is that these guys took the system and adapted it to themselves.”
Now in year ten, Edwards and Dolan spent two semesters in “Memory Club” last year, intensifying their training before the November championship.
“We didn’t expect to break any records,” Dolan says. “Now, my dad’s telling everyone about it and I’m even teaching my big brother stuff.”
“I think I have a better memory just in general from practising it,” Edwards says.
At Munich University in Germany, memory champion and neuroscientist Dr Boris Konrad is one of the few people in the world to have put his techniques through rigorous empirical testing. He recently compared levels of improvement in memory training between those of high intelligence and those of average intelligence.
“While we did find that memory athletes all on average have high IQs, both groups improved at the same rate,” Konrad says. “So it really shows that anyone can learn it.”
Early feedback from Kilov’s Art of Memory Schools program is equally encouraging. One teacher at a Darwin primary school reported remarkable improvement in two students with “extreme emotional problems”, writing: “It’s a bit like therapy for them and also they’re learning.” Another two students moved up two reading levels after just one month.
Still, Wills knows better than anyone how hard it can be to get teachers “on board with new ideas”.
“It’s the first time this has been done so the education system is going to be wary,” he says. “We’re starting small, testing its value and the students are loving it. If we can show they’re also learning long term then I’m sure these techniques will be picked up.”
Kilov is also optimistic. “It’s hard to overhaul a system that’s been around since the industrial revolution,” he says. “But if you give these techniques to students, you’ll empower them to transform the stuff they’re learning into something memorable for them, without having to overhaul anything at all.”
Over in Germany, Dr Konrad is now studying the effectiveness of mnemonic learning aids on first-year university students.
“I see how the techniques have helped me, I see it in other people,” he says. “I don’t think many researchers still get emails from people years after their study thanking them for teaching them things.”
Konrad’s results should line up with those from the Northern Territory program – where student post-testing is due back by the end of first term this year.
“Revolutions have a tendency to come out of nowhere, don’t they?” Kilov says. “In Darwin, we’ve got a small group of dedicated teachers who are hopefully going to be a catalyst for something bigger, a kind of groundswell.”
But, according to Professor Sutton, the biggest spark in the mix might just be Kilov himself.
“One of the advantages of getting that knowledge out into the education system is seeing the enthusiasm someone like Daniel has,” Sutton says. “I think those children are going to benefit very much from it.”
Read more: http://www.theage.com.au/national/education/mnemonics-added-memory-may-power-classroom-success-20160208-gmo945.html#ixzz42wc78qmq Follow us: @theage on Twitter | theageAustralia on Facebook
Words, video and photography by Sherryn Groch
Read Sherryn’s write up of the 2015 Australian Memory Championships.