Asking questions is one of our most important tools for thinking. Questions force us to think. We’re wired to want to give them answers. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it was the proximal question that started it down the slippery slope.
Socrates is still rightly famous for his pedagogic method featuring the almighty question. Creating good questions are one of the most valuable parts of the idea behind Cornell notes. Scientific research is all about asking solid questions.
The wise man doesn’t give the right answers, he poses the right questions.
Teachers often analogize the period as the proverbial “stop sign” of a sentence, but they’re off base—the majority of periods are barely worth a rolling stop at best. I think it’s far more valuable to treat the question mark as an actual stop sign. It tells me to stop and actively think about what I’ve just read. What might the answer be? Is it answerable? Will the text indicate where to go? Will I be left hanging?
As I read, I always actively look out for the question marks in a text. When annotating, I’ll frequently highlight them in situ or in the margins with a simple “?”. What does the question mean for the current context? What might it mean for other tangential and even non-related contexts?
Questions can be used as rhetorical tools by the author to highlight what is important in their narratives or reasoning. Other times, unanswered questions in pieces are some of the most important and pressing portions of a text. They indicate what we don’t know. They indicate where we might try exploring, researching, and expanding our knowledge and place within the world.
Only the Questions
When evaluating whether or not a book will have value, it can be useful to know what sorts of questions the author is asking. Towards this end, I’ve recently come across a great digital tool called Only the Questions from Clive Thompson. It will parse through large bodies of text and extract out only the questions which were posed.
So feel free to throw in your favorite novel, your current non-fiction read, songs, poetry, speeches, religious texts, philosophy, even comics and see what comes out. Read the questions posed before you start. Once you’re done reading, revisit them to determine which ones were answered. Which ones were left as an “exercise for the reader”? Which ones can you provide the answers to now that you’ve read the text? Which questions were left open and will gnaw at your brain for years to come?
My fascination with questions has been super-charged by having such easy access to so many more of them. How will you use this tool?
Do you know of any other clever tools relating to questions? I’d love to know what they are and how you integrate them into your work.
Both Western culture and a tremendous number of indigenous cultures throughout history have used a variety of mnemonic techniques to teach students and help them remember a variety of knowledge. In her seminal work The Art of Memory (University of Chicago, 1966), Francis A. Yates indicates that this tradition in the West declined following the Puritan education reforms of the late 16th century led by Peter Ramus.
This decline is unfortunate as there is a lot of value and even entertainment in these methods. The difficulty of returning to some of these older forms of mnemonics or even revised and modernized methods is coming up with examples that a variety of teachers will quickly grasp and then be able to create lesson plans that will leverage the power of mnemonic techniques for their students.
The break in pedagogy is now so severe that most mentions of mnemonics I’ve seen in modern educational settings are viewed as one-off “tricks” rather than as a bedrock of teaching and learning techniques that they were in our recent past. (How our culture has managed to lose these traditions instead of the scala naturae is beyond me.)
In the Western tradition they were one of the major pillars of rhetoric. In many oral cultures they were integral to those peoples’ lifeways and means of survival to the point that colonizers over history have been known to specifically target, minimize, and even destroy the means for indigenous peoples to use them. My hope is that we might learn from our shared past and resurrect these methods.
This is where a very powerful example of mnemonics pedagogy from the film Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Warner Bros., 2004) may be a great illustration.
Before we start, I realize that the idea of mnemonics pedagogy is both a neologism and a new concept for almost everyone, so let’s take a moment to define it.
Mnemonics pedagogy is the design of lessons, hopefully in a seamless manner, that combines a lesson and attendant facts with the arts of memory (in the Western tradition) or songlines and various mnemonic devices (in the tradition of indigenous cultures). It could be considered a sub-area of instructional design. In it we might hope that the art of memory serves as the bedrock upon which the lesson is built in such a way that it becomes more natural that the students both understand the lesson, but also find it easy to store in their long term memories with minimal revision.
The design should be such that the art of memory is integral and demonstrated organically. The student or learner need not have a pre-existing idea of the arts of memory, but they naturally hear or see them occurring without the need to do the additional work of creating memory palaces, songlines, or doing numerical translations into words or images. At some point, after seeing many examples, the students will have all the attendant mnemotechniques and they’ll be able to more quickly and easily do the memory portion of the work for themselves either in real time, or after-the-fact when browsing their notes.
These techniques may already be practiced by those in curriculum and course design, particularly in digital spaces, though they may be using some “gut feeling” in their practice because they’re not explicitly aware of our shared memory traditions. Hopefully with a stronger knowledge of the space, the instructional design may be more intentional and thus more useful.
For those who are still lost on the art of memory portion, stick with me, and we’ll explore some by example. I’ll also provide some references at the end which will provide some additional description of other practices and methods which may help teachers educate themselves in these techniques and begin experimenting with them in their teaching philosophies.
There’s nothing difficult about any of these techniques; I find that they can be easily taught to even beginning elementary school students. In a moment or two, you’ll have your first one mastered.
Learning to ban boggarts
The scene in the third installment of the Harry Potter film series which we’ll focus on is that in which Professor Remus Lupin in his Defense Against the Dark Arts class teaches his students how to fend off the shape-shifting boggart. Boggarts take the form of what a person fears most. The charm for banishing them begins by creating a strong image in the student’s mind’s eye that takes the form of that feared thing in a silly or absurd context. This followed by the incantation “Riddikulus” (ri-di-KULL-lis) will cause the boggart to take the new shape and the laughter will take the boggart’s power away from it allowing it to be banished.
If you haven’t seen the movie, I’m including a clip from the scene in question as it provides some incredibly valuable context. Most of mnemonics occurs in the practioner’s mind, so in this scene consider the boggart and its various forms as something which is happening in the student’s mind, but through the magic of filmmaking, these images can be seen by everyone in the class as well as viewers of the film.
Those with a background in the art of memory may immediately see where I’m going with this. The remainder may be clueless—if this is you, worry not. A few small hints will speed us along and provide not only a beginning foundation on creating a broader practice of the art of memory, but the example will provide a memorable example of something that we can all see physically compared to the exercise which is usually only practiced in each practitioner’s “mind’s eye”.
Hopefully the additional creative visual scaffolding that the movie example provides will give us enough support to more easily imagine what is going in the thought process we hope to create in our students’ minds. When we remove that scaffolding both teachers and students will be able to expand their learning and study practices. Sometimes it’s having the ability to imagine what is going on in the art of memory that is the most difficult part of beginning to use it.
Lupin makes a suggestion to the first student and tells him that if he “sees it, we’ll see it.” The example is solid enough for other students to easily follow its creativity. Again, the wizarding magic in combination with movie magic allows the viewer to see physically what would otherwise be happening in each mnemonic user’s mind.
The example Lupin provides is incredibly similar to what Rhetorica ad Herennium would suggest. The Rhetorica ad Herennium (translation: Rhetoric for Herennius), formerly attributed to Cicero, but in fact of unknown authorship, is the oldest surviving Latin book on rhetoric, dating from the late 80s BC. It tells us in 3.22 (English translation by Harry Caplan (Loeb Classical Library 403, Harvard University Press,1954)):
Now nature herself teaches us what we should do. When we see in everyday life things that are petty, ordinary, and banal, we generally fail to remember them, because the mind is not being stirred by anything novel or marvelous. But if we see or hear something exceptionally base, dishonourable, extraordinary, great, unbelievable, or laughable, that we are likely to remember a long time. Accordingly, things immediate to our eye or ear we commonly forget; incidents of our childhood we often remember best. Nor could this be so for any other reason than that ordinary things easily slip from the memory while the striking and novel stay longer in mind. A sunrise, the sun’s course, a sunset, are marvelous to no one because they occur daily. But solar eclipses are a source of wonder because they occur seldom, and indeed are more marvelous than lunar eclipses, because these are more frequent. Thus nature shows that she is not aroused by the common, ordinary event, but is moved by a new or striking occurrence. Let art, then, imitate nature, find what she desires, and follow as she directs. For in invention nature is never last, education never first; rather the beginnings of things arise from natural talent, and the ends are reached by discipline.
We ought, then, to set up images of a kind that can adhere longest in the memory. And we shall do so if we establish likenesses as striking as possible; if we set up images that are not many or vague, but doing something; if we assign to them exceptional beauty or singular ugliness; if we dress some of them with crowns or purple cloaks, for example, so that the likeness may be more distinct to us; or if we somehow disfigure them, as by introducing one stained with blood or soiled with mud or smeared with red paint, so that its form is more striking, or by assigning certain comic effects to our images, for that, too, will ensure our remembering them more readily. The things we easily remember when they are real we likewise remember without difficulty when they are figments, if they have been carefully delineated. But this will be essential — again and again to run over rapidly in the mind all the original backgrounds in order to refresh the images.
Lupin cements the lesson to his students by having each come up with their own unique image which they associate with their fear. Having students come up with their own images will almost always be more interesting and more memorable in the long term than them using images that the teacher devises. While using teacher supplied images to start may be helpful from a demonstration perspective, the mnemonic associations will be more relevant, useful and long lasting if the student provides them.
The incantation in the lesson is a logical one as riddikulus is cognate with ridiculous, but has a quirky sounding pronunciation. This funny pronunciation will help the student to more easily remember it. I can also imagine students getting some of the sound of the word “kill” in the middle of riddikulus, and by association they may intend to “kill” the boggart with its use.
Few who have seen the film are likely to forget the worst fears of Neville Longbottom, Ron Weasley, Parvati Patil, Harry Potter, or Remus Lupin. (Go ahead and try it. Can you remember them all? I’ll bet you can.) They will remember them because the images which each conjures to banish their boggart are so well exaggerated, strong, creepy, and funny. Who could forget Professor Snape in a tatty old woman’s dress, hunched over clutching a purse, and wearing a vulture hat? I can almost smell what I’m sure are his elderberry wine-breath, patchouli oil perfume, and his musty stockings. I still chuckle at the concept of a monster sized spider attempting to remain standing while wearing roller skates. For the benefit of coulrophobiacs I’ll stand on apophasis.
While not as strong an association in the exercise, many viewers may be able to remember the order of the participants based on the transformations that occur to the boggart as each takes their turn. Perhaps a stronger grounding in a technique like a the songline or memory palace could have improved our example for this sort of retention.
These undeniably memorable images we see on screen are just the same sorts of images most good treatises of memory have suggested we try imagining in our minds’ eyes to improve our memories for millennia. These include the writings of Aristotle, Cicero, Quintilian, Thomas Aquinas, Roger Bacon, and Giordano Bruno among others. I’m sure I could also cite a ceaseless variety of elders, but the vicissitudes of orality versus literacy and the brutalities of erasure and colonialism prevent providing proper credit.
These writings and teachings admonish us to take objects associated with the thing we want to remember and exaggerate them, make them bigger or smaller, give them a smell, texture, sound, movement. Make them stand out. Make them funny. Make them absurd. These things make the ideas incredibly sticky. They make them hard to forget. They make them dead simple to remember.
As students in the exercise, the creative and absurd images are difficult to forget, so they’re more likely to remember the boggart-banishing spell. As viewers of the movie, the lesson works on a similar level as it makes it easy for us to associate each individual character’s fears with them.
From a pedagogical perspective, the boggart lesson is incredibly well designed because it builds the mnemonic structure directly into the exercise. The students are forced to use their creative imaginations to come up with memorable mental images. For the novice, there would appear to be only one lesson here: the charm. But the clever instructional designer using mnemonic pedagogy will also see a subtle parallel lesson in mnemotechy.
This sort of lesson should be much more prevalent at the lower grades from kindergarten through fourth or fifth grade. They should also be used in upper levels for those just acquainting themselves with these sorts of techniques. Later on in fourth to seventh grades a variety of specific techniques could be taught in turns over a month or so to help students learn the broader variety of thirty or so techniques they might employ over the remainder of their academic careers or even their lives. Some of these techniques might include creating memory palaces, songlines and related journey methods, the phonetic major system, peg systems, and mnemonic devices like lukasa and neolithic stone balls among many others. We might also incorporate into these uses art, music, and dance as well. One would hope that crafty students may learn to use the Guidonian hand and find that it’s easier and more effective than cheating by writing the answers on their hand because it’s less work and the answers are etched more indelibly in their minds.
For those new to the incredibly rich history of the art of memory, keep in mind that this example is very simple and concrete. It only scratches the surface of available techniques. I would hope that folks take some time to delve into the broader practice of mnemonic techniques and experiment with ways of embedding them into their teaching.
Having read a vast swath of books, treatises, and pamphlets on these techniques written over the past two thousand years, one of the best resources I would recommend for teachers is Lynne Kelly’s Memory Craft: Improve Your Memory with the Most Powerful Methods in History (Allen & Unwin, 2019). She outlines one of the largest collections of mnemotechniques in print along with examples of how they might be best used and in which settings. She’s experimented with a wide variety of these techniques and outlines how many of them might be used in practice including the idea of creating what she calls rapscallions to memorize things like multiplication tables or points of grammar in foreign languages.
Some of these techniques are also becoming the focus of some specific research as can be seen in an article earlier this year in PLoS ONE:
Reser D, Simmons M, Johns E, Ghaly A, Quayle M, Dordevic AL, et al. (2021) Australian Aboriginal techniques for memorization: Translation into a medical and allied health education setting. PLoS ONE 16(5): e0251710. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0251710
I’m curious to hear from teachers and researchers who are familiar with these techniques. I’d love to hear examples of how you’ve used or embedded them into your lessons. How effective do you feel they were? Did you use them with spaced repetition techniques as well?
It would be great to create a resource book of examples for others to use in their teaching for lessons at all age levels and abilities.
I’m eager to chat about this topic with others curious about its use and potentially help design lessons that integrate them. I encourage you to reach out.
I’m also happy to provide more focused reading lists and suggestions to those who want to delve deeper.
If you’re curious to delve into the specifics of mnemotechy more seriously, I’m planning on leading another cohort of my course The Art of Memory soon. Feel free to sign up to get notifications.
During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, one of the most important tools of a reader or writer was a commonplace book (CPB). Peter Beal, leading expert on English manuscript studies, defines a commonplace book as “a manuscript book in which quotations or passages from reading matter, precepts, proverbs and aphorisms, useful rhetorical figures or exemplary phrasing, words and ideas, or other notes and memoranda are entered for ready reference under general subject headings.” Your sources can include, first and foremost, the assigned readings and supplementary materials, as well as any other useful texts you come across. I encourage you to supplement CPB entries with extra-curricular material: quotations from readings for other classes, lyrics from songs, lines from movies, tweets with relevant hashtags, an occasional quotation from a classmate during discussion, etc. These extra-curricular commonplace passages, however, are in addition to and not in place of the required passages as described below.
Across a series of posts (1,2,3), Steve Brophy explains his use of Roam Research and the Zettelkasten methodology to develop a deeper dialogue with what he reads. This is broken up into three steps, the initial capturing of ‘fleeting notes‘, rewriting the text in our own words as ‘Literature N...
Some useful looking links here. Thanks Aaron.
I’ve been digging deeper and deeper into some of the topics and sub-topics.
The biggest problem I’ve seen thus far is a lot of wanna-be experts and influencers (especially within the Roam Research space) touching on the very surface of problem. I’ve seen more interesting and serious people within the Obsidian community sharing their personal practices and finding pieces of that useful.
The second issue may be that different things work somewhat differently for different people, none of whom are using the same tools or even general systems. Not all of them have the same end goals either. Part of the key is finding something useful that works for you or modifying something slowly over time to get it to work for you.
At the end of the day your website holds the true answer: read, write, respond (along with the implied “repeat” at the end).
One of the best and most thorough prescriptions I’ve seen is Sönke Ahrens’ book which he’s written after several years of using and researching a few particular systems.
I’ve been finding some useful tidbits from my own experience and research into the history of note taking and commonplace book traditions. The memory portion intrigues me a lot as well as I’ve done quite a lot of research into historical methods of mnemonics and memory traditions. Naturally the ancient Greeks had most of this all down within the topic of rhetoric, but culturally we seem to have unbundled and lost a lot of our own traditions with changes in our educational system over time.
Before delving into the text of The City of God, Professor Mathewes sets the stage with some context about the many audiences that Augustine was writing for, as well as the arguments against Christians that he was confronting. See how Augustine co-opted Roman notions of city" and "glory" and applied them to his divine purpose."
A fascinating lecture about the word City of the title and the first word of the book with a tad about the rest of the first sentence!
The word ekphrasis, or ecphrasis, comes from the Greek for the description of a work of art produced as a rhetorical exercise, often used in the adjectival form ekphrastic.—Wikipedia
While many may consider this example of Homer’s to be the first instance of ekphrasis within literature (primarily because it specifically depicts an artwork, which is part of the more formal definition of the word), I would posit that even earlier descriptions in the Iliad itself which go into great detail about individuals and their methods of death are also included in a broader conception of ekphrasis. This larger ekphrasis subsumes all of these descriptions in an tradition of orality as being portions of ancient memory palaces within a broader field of mnemotechny. I imagine that these graphic, bloody, and larger-than-life depictions of death not only encoded the names and ideas of the original people/ancestors, but they were also quite likely to have had additional layers of memory encoded (or attached) to them as well. Here I’m suggesting that while an actual shield may or may not have originally existed that even once the physical shield or other object is gone or lost that the remembered story of the shield still provides a memory palace to which other ideas can be attached.
(I’ll remind the forgetful reader than mnemotechny grows out of the ancient art of rhetoric as envisioned in Rhetorica ad Herennium, and thus the use of ekphrasis as a rhetorical device implicitly subsumes the idea of memory, though most modern readers may not have that association.)
Later versions of ekphrasis in post-literate history may have been more about the arts themselves and related references and commentary (example: Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn), but I have a strong feeling that this idea’s original incarnation was more closely related to early memory methods at the border of oral and literate societies.
In other words, ancient performers, poets, etc. may have created their own memory palaces by which they were able to remember long stories like the Iliad, but what is to say that these stories themselves weren’t in turn memory palaces to the listeners themselves? I myself have previously used the plot and portions of the movie Fletch as a meta memory palace in just this way. As the result of ritualistic semi-annual re-watchings of classic and engaging movies like this, I can dramatically expand my collection of memory palaces. The best part is that while my exterior physical location may change, classics movies will always stay the same. And in a different framing, my memories of portions of history may also help me recall a plethora of famous movie quotes as well.
Can I borrow your towel? My car just hit a water buffalo.—Irwin M. Fletcher
Have you ever felt like you're talking, but nobody is listening? Here's Julian Treasure to help you fix that. As the sound expert demonstrates some useful vocal exercises and shares tips on how to speak with empathy, he offers his vision for a sonorous world of listening and understanding.