Candlebark School and Memory Systems

I am still bowled over by what a skilled teacher with really amazing students can do with the ideas in Memory Craft. The Year 3/4 teacher at Candlebark school, Nat, had heard about my work from her husband, Paul, who had heard an interview about The Memory Code. She invited me to give a workshop at the school – I had no idea how overwhelming it would be. Photos by Nat and Damian Kelly – all with permission of the parents and school.

Nat had already introduced the students to aspects of my work and they really understood how association and memory works. After talking briefly about Indigenous cultures and memory systems, with particular emphasis on Australian First Nations cultures, we made memory boards – each student creating a memory device for a topic they had chosen to investigate in detail. We modelled these on the African lukasa of the Luba people. I recycle beads from the MAAW (Mount Alexander Animal Welfare) Op Shop (Charity Shop) taking all the broken jewellery that they would normally have to discard. Students pin these to boards to represent their chosen topic.

The care students took chasing the right bead for each item in their sequence of information was wonderful to watch. That time is invaluable – it fixes the association between the bead and the knowledge. One white bead with red in the middle represented a heart while a black and white one was a panda. The panda-encoding students was particularly pleased with his choice from a variety of black and white options. The heart-shaped bead was perfect, he explained, because he loves pandas.

A week later, I did the same workshop with first year Cultural Astronomy students at the University of Melbourne under the guidance of Associate Professor Duane Hamacher. There was the same enthusiasm, the same careful selection of beads, the same ability to explain why a particular bead was chosen. The only difference was the complexity of the data encoded – the university students encoded 88 constellations and the meanings of the names. Back to Candlebark…

Having pinned the beads to the boards, often rearranging them a few times, students then used glue guns to fix them permanently.

Damian appeared at the end of the session and was soon surrounded by enthusiastic kids wanting to explain their lukasas (technically, the plural is nkasa) to him.

But the excitement of the lukasa workshop was just the start! Katy, a maths specialist teacher, had taken my Rapscali Tables concept and run wild with it. Students had pre-tested on tables and then illustrated the ones they didn’t know – making them instantly memorable.

7 x 3 = 21. Heaven x tree = plenty sun. The student’s personal character, her rapscallion, is now in a story she has created which starts with the rapscallion in heaven, then with a tree and ending with plenty of sun. Here I am being told the story.

4 x 8 = 32. The story has to take the rapscallion from the door to a gate and end up with a dirty shoe. For some students, it is the story they really embellish.

And some students are incredibly artistic and embellish with art. I was astounded by these examples.

But I was unprepared for the most amazing part of all. I had seen students making lukasa before. I had seen Rapscali tables at work. But I had never experienced students performing a songline through the bush and ending up at a woodhenge.

A few weeks later, the students led a group of parents, siblings, Principal John Marsden, and others up to the bush above the classrooms. They started by telling us – through performance – about how incredibly long Aboriginal people had been in Australia and how we were following their knowledge system based on sacred locations along a sung knowledge trail. We stopped along the trail to hear about 12 different civilisations in chronological order – ancient Egyptians and Babylonians, Romans and Greeks (arguing who pinched what and who was the greatest) – to the present day. There was terrific creativity and humour in the performances, but the basis was solid knowledge – and these students now have grounded this sequence in hooks on which to hang so much more learning.

Arriving at the henge, painstakingly built by Nat, Paul and year 3/4 parents, students took to the 12 posts representing the civilisations.

This was surprising. I had always assumed – without realising the assumption – that the ancient knowledge keepers would have progressed around the henge posts or stones much as I do around a memory palace. It hadn’t occurred to me that there may be experts on each topic, ‘owning’ each post or stone and the knowledge it represented. Is there any way the archaeology could ever tell us if this is the case?

Various performances told us more about the civilisations and what we have learnt from them to inform contemporary life. And they performed their multiplication tables, also linked to their woodhenge! Finally, we were reminded that Australia’s First Nations people had been there long before all of the other cultures and are still here as dynamic cultures today.

After the students had left, I stayed in their woodhenge for a while totally overwhelmed by what had happened. Never have I been more convinced that this is the way Stonehenge and the British Woodhenge and all the other Neolithic monuments would have been used. Never have I been more convinced of the value of Indigenous memory systems for education. And never have I been more convinced that there is an incredible younger generation just longing to learn.

Other classes at the school will use the Woodhenge and the trail through the bush for different topics in the future.

Thank you so much Nat, for being such an incredible teacher and John Marsden, for creating a school like Candlebark which allows students to learn with so much creativity.

Visual Alphabets galore

Of all my memory devices, the Visual Alphabet is probably the one I use most after the The Bestiary.

Basically, it is a peg system – information is pegged onto each item in the sequence. The most familiar peg system is 1-sun, 2-shoe, 3-tree and so on. But 7 gives you heaven and so 11 gives you a problem. Nothing else rhymes!

In Medieval times, they also used visual alphabets. These were alphabets created using images of objects to link to ideas. One of the most beautiful is that of Giovannino de Grassi created in 1390.

I combined a number of Medieval techniques to create my Visual Alphabet, in particular making each image link to the next visually so I didn’t need to go back to the letter and alphabet each time. When I was at the Rat I knew that the Skull came next. If I can’t remember what is next, I can always think “R is rat and then comes S which is skull”. But I never have to do that, I know it so well. Here is one page of the six which are in Memory Craft.

I would have much rather have done the 26 characters as a sequence, rather than split them onto six pages, but that wouldn’t work for printing the book. In the above image, Quetzalcoatl is entwined with the teal of the panther for the previous page.

I have had a lot of emails from people who use either my Visual Alphabet or one of their own and find them incredibly effective. I was delighted to receive an email with images from Ann Bidstrup who runs Heart Art in Park Orchards. In last term’s Art for Well Being workshops the women created concertina books for their personal Visual Alphabets , here are twelve of them. They look wonderful.

I love them! I hear that they work really well.

Interestingly, these artists don’t include the letters, just the characters. I am going to try that. I originally designed my Visual Alphabet as a continuous image like these before I had to convert it to suit inclusion in Memory Craft. But I always included the letter. I now think that this may be better. I am going to do mine again as a concertina book like these.

I use my Visual Alphabet for all public speaking, for temporary bird lists when out birding [no need to carry a pen and paper – we record them when we get home]. I use it for to-do lists, shopping lists … anything temporary.

One of the sessions at my full day workshop for Independent Schools Victoria next year will include creating a Visual Alphabet and Bestiary. Along with memory palaces and memory boards and a lot more. Their workshops are open to anyone, not just teachers from independent schools.

Adding layers to a memory palace & The Eastern Curlew

I had a lovely time at the Stories of Influence writers’ festival at Lake Tyers in Gippsland, Victoria. With indigenous and non-indigenous participants, the role of story and art in all sorts of cultures dominated the weekend’s activities.

After delivering a worksop and talk on memory methods, I was part of a panel about writing. One of the highlights of the festival was meeting Harry Saddler, sitting next to me on the panel.

Harry is the author of the fascinating book, The Eastern Curlew. This book and meeting Harry gave me a terrific opportunity to add another layer to my bird field guide, which I have encoded to a lukasa.

The same approach works for layering any new knowledge. You need the memory structure (memory palace, songline, memory board …) in place first. I have described the lukasa before. It is a memory board adapted from those used by the African Luba people. It functions just like a miniature memory palace.

I use this lukasa as a field guide to the birds of Victoria which I use all the time when out birding. I don’t need it with me – it is all in memory. I first encoded all the bird families and species. Now I am adding all sorts of information about each species. Layer upon layer.

The Eastern Curlew is in the Sandpiper family, Scolopacidae. My story for the 25 species is about a band playing at a beach party. The Sand Pipers. I remember the family name by imaging that you have to pass under a pole (the old limbo dance) to get in. The tell you to sco-low-[to]-pass.

The family is associated with the red bead on the bottom, to the right hand end of the lukasa. The Eastern Curlew is the 9th species – all the curlews are curly haired attendees at the party.

I then add details about the Eastern Curlew to the character in the story. The fantasy and the real facts just make it memorable. My brain never confuses the two. It does play with the images, though!

See that Eastern Curlew feather that Harry is holding? He showed me the wear on the edges. That feather flew with the curlew for over 10,000 km. They are the most extraordinary migrators – from here in southern Australia to Russia and suchlike. Incredible.

The migration behaviour has just fleshed out my Eastern Curlew character at the beach party. He now flies in from a great distance to get to the party – as do many of the other species. I am slowly adding details of the migrations to the family members – those who stay here to breed (some wild things go on at this beach party) and those who travel great distances to do the same thing.

The more that you play with the knowledge in your memory palaces, the more beautiful, imaginative, fun and informative they become.

Memory Craft – I have the advance copy!

I am so excited that the advance copy of Memory Craft has arrived. Details of the contents can be found here!

Only a few weeks now until the June 3 publication by Allen & Unwin.

The launch will be help at Castlemaine Library at 5:30 pm on June 13. To be launched by Dr Duane Hamacher, with talk on memory methods. Booking will be available through their website very soon. If you are coming to the launch and want to join us for dinner afterwards, please contact me through the contact form and I’ll let you know what’s happening.

Memory Craft is available for pre-order through Book Depository (world wide) and Booktopia (Australia only) among others.

Long corridors as memory palaces

Corridors are perfect to use as memory palaces – once they are decorated in a structured way. So why do we waste the corridors in schools and universities when they could become such valuable spaces? Usually, if there are any decorations, they are just nice pictures or random posters.

I was pointed to the Long Corridor at the Summer Palace in Beijing by a reader of The Memory Code. It is a superb use of a corridor as a memory palace.

Click on the image below to go to the Wikipedia entry about it.


I finally found a book showing the images and simply adore it. This covered walkway is found in the Summer Palace in Beijing. It dates from the middle of the 18th century. At 728 metres long, it is decorated with more than 14,000 gorgeous paintings. These tell stories – the entire structure acting as a sensational memory palace.


Why not use school and university spaces as memory palaces?

Instead of numbering rooms as dull old 1, 2, 3 … why not 5000 BC, 4000 BC, 3000 BC … and use the spaces between for images suiting that time period. Students will recall where they saw Stonehenge, for example, and associate it with the area around 5000 BC. Or number the rooms for the last few hundred years and illustrate more recent events chronologically?

How about naming the rooms by letter a, b, c … and add images for the words in a foreign language? Or new words in English?

Why not have the students do the images in art? All indigenous cultures integrate art as a key component of the knowledge system. Our even include small videos recording songs composed by students to store knowledge? The ever changing display will attract attention.

It is well known in educational circles that taking information in one form, say writing, and adapting it to another form, say images or music, makes it more memorable. You need to concentrate and know the information well to creatively adapt it. The only limits are imagination – and schools all have art and music teachers and a mob of creative types who can help set the imaginations of students on a wild spree.

A memory palace must be structured – not just an array of paintings or a set of songs. Without structure it is just another gallery display.

And while we are at it – why not use the school grounds as memory palaces as well – just like the Australian Aboriginal songlines and Native American pilgrimage trails? And none of this needs funding! We can do all of this within the art and music curricula as well as meeting the requirements for every subject in the school. We just need to stop separating knowledge into neat little packages – we need to integrate it.

But what I really want is my very own Long Corridor just like the one in the Summer Palace. Please!