Abbey Connected: The Memory Project

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What is the value of Pi to 16 decimal places? The answer is 3.1415926535897932, which is Pi expressed with sufficient accuracy for the purpose of space engineering. Earlier this week, two students taught it from memory, in a few moments, to a lecture theatre audience who also then knew it from memory, and repeated it back to them. And it sticks: which I know because I typed it from memory here (and then checked it via Google, of course…).

This was a demonstration of the memory palace technique: part of The Memory Project initiative at The Abbey. Under the leadership of Head of Psychology and memory champion James Paterson, we are exploring the role of cognitive psychology in education. How do we learn? How does memory work? How can we help our memories to work smarter? And how can we ensure that we understand the way our minds work more generally, and learn to think critically, to imagine and invent with freedom and purpose?

This week saw a wonderful event at school as part of this Project. James explored memory techniques on stage, including demonstrating his own knowledge of Pi to hundreds of decimal places; students taught the audience the techniques of memory stories and memory palaces; there was a live competition of memory skill, in which I was soundly thrashed by Junior School students; two visiting professors from the University of Reading discussed the way memory works and how certain diets improve brain performance (top tip: regular blueberry smoothies); and finally students from The Abbey and our partner schools attended break-out sessions led by alumnae who are studying and working in the field of psychology.

The event was part of our ARCH programme, providing remarkable learning opportunities to young people across Reading. It was also a step towards future memory and psychology events, part of James’s ground-breaking work bringing benefits to all Abbey students, to partner schools, and to the way we teach and learn.

From September all students in Upper IV (Year 9) will study a course of cognitive psychology as part of their core curriculum, looking to acquire the skills and self-understanding that will equip them to tackle GCSEs and Sixth Form study. Examination and assessment can feel overwhelming. The more we help students understand learning as a set of skills, over which they have ownership, and which they can consciously choose to practise and develop, the more perspective we hope to give them about these challenges, and all those that lie beyond.

We’re hugely excited about The Memory Project. It connects to our ground-breaking Human Intelligence curriculum at the Junior School and to the enrichment and critical thinking embedded in learning throughout our curriculum. As we ponder the advance of AI, what is clear above all is that understanding our own human intelligence will be critical in the years ahead. 

We want our students to gain the excellent qualifications that unlock the doors of their future, and the in-depth but utterly natural understanding of technology that they undoubtedly need. Alongside this we seek to help them gain knowledge of themselves. As Danielle George, another brilliant recent ARCH speaker, reminded her audience, the human brain is quite the machine. If one were to encode the brain’s information in digital form, and play the subsequent string of 1s and 0s as if it were a song, the track would last for fifty thousand trillion trillion years.

The Memory Project will help students understand this marvel that they carry so effortlessly with them, and from which they view the world; and in so doing, will help them understand who they are and how they interact with others. It’s an ambitious and exciting journey of discovery – which is what The Abbey is all about.

Will le Fleming, Head

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