Why use memory journeys in history?

Teaching is about providing students with the information they need to be a success in whatever it is they are trying to do. Learning is about them being able to remember this information when they need it. For many years as a teacher I felt I was not bad at the former (getting stuff into their working memories), but generally left students to do the long term memory work – ‘Revision’! This was a mistake. They didn’t do a very good job of ‘learning’. And so now I have decided to do it for them.

The technique I use is an ancient one, known these days mainly by fans of Sherlock, and it involves teaching students an imaginary journey to follow which contains a series of detailed facts. They then simply recall the journey in their heads and they remember the information they need. I have heard people refer to the technique as method of loci or a memory or mind palace but I prefer the term memory journey. I explain it to my students as an attempt to go beyond working memory and force a piece of information directly into their long term memory (This is not quite what is happening, but it helps them, and me, visualise what I am trying to do) AND at the same time it creates a pathway for the student to use to recall the information. It is this latter part that makes this technique different from other types of mnemonic. By having an actual location (in their head) to visit to find the information, it makes it much easier for students to recall it.

Testing of the memory journey (interleaved with other work and regularly spaced), by the teacher, or the student outside of class, makes the pathway stronger and the information can be recalled more easily. The aim being that, with enough practice at recounting the story and testing on it, the memory journey is left behind leaving simply a mastery of the details alone. And, as we all (should) know, without the detailed knowledge of a subject we can do very little independent, high level thinking. Just read Daniel T. Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School? March 2009.

In what may be a very short series of blog posts to follow, I will set out some of the memory journeys I use in class (mainly covering history content for KS3, 4 and 5). For the first one on the Fighting disease 1861-83 for GCSE Medicine Through Time see my post for May 1st 2016. My second one, on the long term causes of WW1 see May 13th 2016. My third from January 2017 is Public Health Part 1: 1842-1858 with the second part published in April 2017 – 1858-76.

If you want to know more about memory journeys then I cannot recommend more highly the work of Ed Cooke, twitter: @tedcooke, and his marvellous book Remember Remember. You will soon be able to list all the kings and queens of England, the presidents of USA, the prime ministers of UK and the countries of Europe.