Mnemonics lack depth for Art

Deep Water

Are there essential facts that every student should know? What would you include/exclude? Knowledge-based curriculum is on the rise; what is it? Does this apply to all subjects (including visual arts)?

A knowledgebased curriculum is about harnessing the power of cognitive science, identifying each marginal gain and acting upon it; having the humility to keep refining schemes of work, long term plans and generating better assessments. – Nick Gibb, 2017

Tom Sherrington¹ suggests four components summarised here:

  • Providing an underpinning philosophy
  • Specifics in detail
  • Remembered, not merely encountered
  • Sequenced and mapped deliberately

He goes on to conclude: “It’s way beyond some reductive idea of rote learning and regurgitating facts for no purpose.   It’s about ensuring students always have a secure knowledge platform allowing them to reach the next level.”

What would be the underpinning knowledge for Visual arts?

I have been struggling with this idea for the past couple of months as I have been asked to provide an answer to this by my regional MAT (multi-academy trust). In my last blog post, I put forward some examples to be critiqued (Aunt Sallys), and I am awaiting feedback from a reviewer/QA. Essential, my hypothesis was that the essential formal elements of artistic practice were only understood through deep understanding, ie. practice. Likewise, art historical developments in the visual arts (major movements in Western visual arts like Cubism, Surrealism etc) are more deeply understood through practice too.

It was put to me that key knowledge could be encoded in Year 9 for retrieval in Year 11; set deep into the memory then recalled when needed if the memory encoding can be done in a fun, entertaining and appealing way. Not rote-learned but entrusted by way of mnemonics. Could visual arts be mnemonically encoded too?


Well, we do it with colour theory all the time… or do we? The ROYGBIV mnemonic helps us remember the order of colours in a rainbow/spectrum but tells us nothing about complementary contrasting colour, mixing tertiaries etc. In a practical sense, even this most basic artistic mnemonic lacks depth.

(W)e need to seize opportunities to broaden curriculum content out into much more than a series of well remembered facts. That’s the bottom line – the lowest common denominator. While I accept that perhaps we haven’t even achieved this as well as we might in the past, it is still no more ambitious a goal than getting the kit on a footballer without aspiring to put him on the pitch. When I teach the Romans, I firstly accept one thing:- I’m not going to have the time to teach it all. These historical periods are massive. So you have to focus in on the key areas and things you want them not just to KNOW, but to UNDERSTAND. – Debra Kidd, 2018²

Providing an underpinning knowledge for art is an abstraction from actually undertaking the making of art. There can be no deep understanding of creative, practical subjects without practice. Students approach learning in one of two ways: either in a kind of utilitarian, surface manner, wanting only to memorize as much as possible, in order to pass exams; or in a deeper, more meaningful manner, wanting to understand the material and relate it to their personal lives.

Alfred Korzybski introduced and popularised the idea that the map is not the territory (1913). In other words, the description of the thing is not the thing itself. The model is not reality. The abstraction is not the abstracted. This has enormous practical consequences when we are looking into knowledge-based curriculum for the arts that I have posted about before here and here.

Limitations of Abstracting knowledge

There are mnemonic systems out there made popular by world record holders and gamblers alike. The Memory Palace, Loci, Major system, PAO and other linguistic/imaginative systems have been used for centuries in one form or another. Books like How to Pass Exams (1995) by Dominic O’Brien, a world memory champion, use an accelerated learning technique (based on PAO) to memorise key facts.

These mnemonic devices lack context, don’t guarantee understanding and are time-consuming. All well and good if I want to commit to memory the names of the world’s longest rivers and have a few hours to memorise and practice recall. Does an ability to recall from memory the names and lengths of rivers give me a deep understanding of fluvial processes? Erosion, deposition and transportation might better be understood through fieldwork. In my Geography GCSE, do I show my understanding of processes through the names or will I just maybe get a few extra marks if I can recall names and lengths?

In practical terms, mnemonic techniques might eat into valuable curriculum time for the visual arts, time better spent doing than encoding facts to memory. I am open to dialogue though; take a look at memory techniques here to see the Art of Memory, and if these are relevant in conveying knowledge of the visual arts.

¹Tom Sherrington What is a knowledge-rich curriculum? Principle and Practice,, 6th June, 2018

²Debra Kidd A Rich Curriculum,, 11th June, 2018

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.