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I spent a couple of days in my daughter’s school recently making a film. It was a very interesting thing to do. The teachers are great but I was struck again, after a lifetime of learning, how haphazardly effective learning techniques are taught. Nothing to do with that school, those teachers, more of an existential crisis of national teaching methods.

I have believed for many years that you should teach “How to Learn” as a subject. One hour a week would be enough.

We could teach our students not only the techniques, memory, mnemonics, mathematical shortcuts etc, but also WHY they are learning.

It might sound stupid now, after 30 years of writing, but it took me years to work out why we were writing essays at school at all. What were we trying to achieve? What does the ideal essay look like? How should it be structured?

Thirteen-year-old Des would desperately try and write some intro, waffle on and find a last line but I never knew WHY I was doing it. But understanding why is the foundation to doing anything well, I have found. Yes, all of us can stumble through a challenge and get results, but why not just deal with the definitions in the first place?

It’s not like it’s difficult to do.

Most of us have argued the merits of a favourite film down the pub. We talk about why it moves us, the big themes in it, how that compares to other films by the same director, or how it contrasts with other films that tell the opposite story. We do the same thing discussing football or friends’ relationships. We do this by offering up evidence and making arguments. Isn’t this, essentially, what an essay is?

How about structure? The two truths of journalism (as I was taught it) stand you well for essays too.

One: Tell em what you’re gonna tell em (the intro), tell em (the main body) the tell em what you told em (the conclusion).

Two: The above gives you the macro view of an essay but the micro view is the other journalistic truism of: a good story sticks to the 5 Ws. Who? Why? What? Where? When?

As for structure: blob out a short list for any essay along the following lines, and half your panic is gone already.

  • Intro – paraphrase the question and summarise the points you want to make
  • Point 1 – Your idea and the evidence
  • Point 2 – Your idea and the evidence
  • Point 3 – Your idea and the evidence
  • Outro – summarise your overall case.

The above four paragraphs took four minutes to write. But I was never taught it. I had to piece it together from a dozen sources because there was no-one in my family to either know or communicate it and it was not taught in school. My daughter, on the other hand, hears this regularly from me. How can this not impact on her ability to produce better essays than I was able to at her age?

A practical example.

If you want to understand history, you need to understand timelines. A great timeline for pegging history to is list of kings and queens of England. They run in an unbroken line (barring the two Cromwell’s and the Commonwealth) from pre-Norman times to the present day.  Learn a bit about each one, see pictures of what they looked like (outfits are a good clue as to which period you are in) and be able to name them in order and you have a 1,000 year timeline to peg all of the more fashionable themes of contemporary history teaching.

How to teach this to a 9 year old?

I use loci – location based memory.

We picked a walk that my daughter knows well – from the local dry cleaners via our front door, through the house, out the garden and into a local park, ending up at her best friend’s house. We picked objects along the way and then tied one piece of knowledge to each object by creating fanciful little stories. For example, there’s a house with a bikeshed close to the dry cleaners which is where Henry II had to live. For any Henry in our list we use our lovely friend Henry, this time covered in poo (number 2) climbing out of the bikeshed. As a basic list item that worked. When we wanted to expand that, we had him coming out of the shed to be confronted by Tom (from Tom and Jerry) holding hands with my sister Beck. She quickly got Thomas Beckett from that. He was the only Archbishop of Canterbury we mentioned so she knew it was him. Four knights like the ring wraiths from Lord of the Rings rise up and kill Tom. I told her all about that – how Henry uttered the line “Will no-one rid me of this turbulent priest?”, the murder (I showed her a picture of the monument in the Cathedral on google) and Henry’s barefoot walk in penance to London. The more detailed stuff was just easy to remember once she had the peg of Henry II from the main list. We did this for all of them. So she’ll tell you trivia like how Henry III kept a polar bear in his zoo at the Tower of London or how George VI had a stutter. She loves the Edwardian period for clothes so paid special attention to Edward the VII for example. We were in Waterloo Place, London, and she saw a statue and was able to tell me without seeing an inscription that it was indeed Edward VII – Queen Victoria’s son.

Let me tell you this. It took no more than 6 hours total to get this into her.

Teaching her that list took at most 2 hours. A week of rehearsing it (10 minutes a day) and gradually adding in some titbits of history took a few minutes each time.  After that it was just fun revising as we walked occasionally. 6 months on she knows the list, can you tell you a bit about the rulers themselves but also tell you some wider stories. Which king usurped the Catholic Church to set up the Church of England? She will tell you all about Henry VIII and his six wives, tell you with which rulers the Tudors and Stuarts began and ended with. She’ll tell you about the Reformation and what happened to the Abbeys.

She can tell you similar stories about Richard I fighting Saladin.

Let me say it again: We have spent no more than 6 hours in total working on this – 4 of which were just good fun. When she talks about these issues or simply recites the list for other people, they look at her like she is a magician. In truth it gives her the pegs to hang several years of early learning History. I find it hard to believe she will ever forget the list now.

I taught her class some similarly constructed walks on how to remember the continents, some of their constituent countries, from smallest to largest, in 15 minutes. I was talking to one of the students the other day, 6 months or more since that lesson, and she could still flawlessly give me that list. Fifteen minutes for a lifetime of knowledge.

Framework knowledge like these lists are crucial to good learning. If a student has confidence in their knowledge of the structure then new information can slot in more quickly, helping their wider understanding. In another discipline, for example, you can’t do higher maths unless you are confident in your times tables.

Talking of maths, it was taking forever for her to learn her times tables at school, so I decided to see if there was a way of finding shortcuts.

I found several.

Learn this sequence. 8 6 4 2 0. Got it? Now say your eight times table looking at this list. Get it? If you know this sequence then you can do your 8 times table with the sequence showing you the last number of the answer. This loops indefinitely.    The answers of course are 8, 16, 24, 32, 40, 48, 56, 64, 72, 80etc

Reverse that sequence to its mirror image, 0 2 4 6 8 and you have your 2xtable (starting with 0x2=)

What about 6 and its mirror image 4?    The sequence is 6 2 8 4 0 (for 6x table) or 0 4 8 2 6 (four times table).

The trickiest two tables to learn are 3 and 7. But even then I quickly spotted the patten.

Picture the dialling screen on your iPhone.

1  2  3

4  5  6

7  8  9


Start with 7 and work your way up the first column, got to same place in the second and continue, then the third and finally the nought. 7, 14, 21, 28, 35, 42, 49, 5b, 63, 7b etc. For the 3x table just start diametrically opposite from the 7 and go down instead of up. Got it?

I had her doing all her times tables over the course of two walks to school.

Why do we make it so hard for our teachers, children (and even ourselves) to get this type of learning into our heads.

I wish I knew but I can tell you that she finds super easy and beneficial.

Try it.