Art of Memory: Visual Keys

Whiteboard and Notes Mercury
Whiteboard Mercury

I’ve been teaching students to doodle in my class.

Ok, you may think, Mr. Watt has finally gone off his rocker.  

But deliberate doodling is actually an important component of the Art of Memory.  Chances are good that many of my readers have seen one or two of the Royal Society of the Arts‘ illustrated talks, or seen an animated TED talk, or even this clever approach to advertising by Pimsleur.  We know that these methods work very well at training our brain to remember information. Why? Because they’re a concentration of information: verbalized instructions combined with written information combined with visual information. And we have the ability to remember all of that easily and quickly, because the information is stored in three places in our brain, at least.  The visual image helps us reconstruct the picture in our mind — not just of the picture, but also the information associated with that picture.

So today, I wanted to talk about parts of speech in my Latin classes, and I gave them this guy, Mercury, to associate with him in their notes.  You can see that I included a lot of traditionally ‘occult’ information around him: the number 8, his astrological symbol, his winged hat and sandals, his caduceus.  Next to him on the right side, you can see the list of the things that I asked the kids to think about in their drawing, too; and of course his color is orange (Wednesday is “Orange Tie Day.”)

Notes Mercury
Mercury as it appears in my notes

So what’s the point? Why teach kids to doodle? Isn’t that irresponsible? Well, think about what I’m doing. I’m linking strong visual images to key pieces of information that they will need to answer questions on tests and quizzes. I’m helping them practice visual note-taking. I’m encouraging my students… no, requiring them! To think about representation of ideas, and how certain types of knowledge connect to certain pictures.

We live in one of the most rabidly visual eras of all time.  All kinds of artforms are wildly popular — comic books, television shows, advertising (not popular! I hear you say… but I answer, Really? Then why do we keep buying stuff?), movies, YouTube videos, animations… and yet, in the vast majority of schools, we provide NO INSTRUCTION at all in learning to see, interpret or create visual images.

Why not put that instruction into a class about a dead language, like Latin?

But more than that, even: human beings are pattern-recognizers and pattern-makers.  Yet for decades, possibly most of a century, print and video and other technologies have gradually robbed people of their right to be pattern-makers and creators.  It would be a sad and silent forest if no birds sang except the best; likewise, it is a sad world where no one draws except the experts.

So, for these reasons, I will teach my students to be picture-makers in their notes, and creators of images and symbols that help them relate images to information.  If it helps them become better note-takers, great… But I also hope that it makes some of them into better film makers and storytellers, because they understand how their visual literacy skills help them communicate greater truths to the world.


  1. You sound like such a great teacher Mr. Watt! Just today my art teacher was talking about how most schools don’t teach kids the art of creativity anymore and how many curriculums are more left-brained than right-brained. It’s so refreshing to see teachers who care about the arts as well 🙂

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