Learning new tricks about learning: maps and history

| learning, life, sketches, teaching

imageFrom Tuesday: J- has started Grade 8, the year before high school. Last schoolyear, we invested more time into helping her learn, and that worked well. I wonder what we’ll learn about learning this year.

J- was preparing for a quiz on pre-confederation Canada. To help, the teacher had labelled the settlements with A, B, C, and so on. J had made her own mnemonics. For example, D stood for ReD River Settlement. But the letters weren’t assigned in any obvious order, so J- was memorizing an arbitrary association.

Placing the information on the map was much more useful. We scanned in J-’s handout, then J- traced it using Autodesk Sketchbook Pro. With a blank map, J- could then add layers with her labels. After a few tries, she could correctly label all the areas in less than a minute and a half. (… and so could I! That will probably come in handy for any citizenship tests.)

We created a new map for Canada’s current provinces, and we quizzed ourselves on that too. For kicks, we took J’-s jigsaw puzzle of the provinces of the Philippines, mixed up the pieces, and assembled everything without looking at the picture. That was fun, although I was a bit slower putting together Mindanao’s provinces than I was at Luzon and Visayas. (More travel?)

Out of curiosity, I flipped through the other pages in her folder. One of the sheets had a timeline of events. “What if we could learn the order of these events?” I asked J-.

  1. She looked at me, probably as intimidated as I was. I remember having such difficulty with trivia like that in my history classes. Time to see if I could pass on some tips from Moonwalking with Einstein and other mind-hacking resources.
  2. I told J- about the idea of a memory palace – exaggerating the characteristics of items you need to memorize, then imagining them in specific locations in a place you know well. We walked through the process of imagining reminders:
  3. golden blueberry bushes in the front yard for the prospectors of the gold rush
  4. our cats meowing to be let out of the door – Ottawa
  5. a colony of dust bunnies on the shelf – BC became a colony
  6. Americans politely fighting over the litter boxes – the American Civil War
  7. Charlotte Lucas and Mr. Collins on the sofa, discussing their impending unionDiscussion at Charlottetown
  8. … while Mr. Collins’ 72 relatives crowd in front of the bookcase (recalling Lost in Austen) – 72 Resolutions in Quebec
  9. Mr. and Mrs. News and Mr. and Mrs. Canada getting together around the kitchen table – Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Canada West, and Canada East
  10. Tripping over a giant rubber eraser in an HBC bag blocking the corridor – Rupert’s Land, HBC 
  11. Walking up the stairs and meeting a man with a big toe – Manitoba joins
  12. Peeking into the guest room and seeing a busy party BC joins
  13. Going to the bathroom – PEI
  14. Going to J’s room and seeing her toys in a circleConsolidated Indian Act

We imagined it while we were in the living room. She physically traced the steps and talked about the things she imagined. Then she mentally retraced the steps. Even after watching a movie (Pom Poko, by Studio Ghibli), she still remembered the sequence. Let’s see if she ends up using it in school!

It’s fun adding tools to J’s learning kit. She picked up the strategy of inventing mnemonics. She made flashcards to practise the Gnommish alphabet from the Artemis Fowl series. Now she knows about mapping and the memory palace technique. For dates, we might try the Major system, if we can wrap our minds around it. I wish I’d learned about these things when I was in school, but hey, good to pass on the hacks! =)


  1. It’s better to find useful associations than arbitrary ones.
  2. Autodesk Sketchbook Pro and other drawing programs can be good educational tools.
  3. Learning something might not be important, but learning how to learn something – ah, that can be valuable.
  4. The memory palace technique is great for remembering sequences. Exaggerated images stick in your brain.
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