Response to a question on using the GoldList Method for non-language learning

This is actually (according to heartfelt congratulations sent to me by my WordPress robot yesterday, celebrating my 1,000th post with a glass of robot prosecco) the 1,001st post so I should try to make it a good one, and in this cause I am indebted to a reader called Ywan, who left the following question on one of the pages here explaining the GLM:

Dear Mr. James,

I was wondering if the GLM would also be suitable for learning other things like historic dates. Do you have any experience with learning things with the GLM other than vocabulary? How well does it work?

Thank you.

Here’s my response, and I think it will be useful for all my readers, ergo, it is a post in its own right.

Dear Ywan, an excellent question.

I will be writing a section on this at length, to the book that these pages are the precursor to. I will also turn this answer into a full article for today’s blog.

The answer is that it really does work very well. Right now I am actually learning a large set of different topics including even mathematics (I don’t do the exercises from the book only the main worked exemplars and the explanations and instructions. The key here is to keep the headlist nice and loose and include whatever you are going to need in the future in it. This may, for some topics, mean that you even need to reproduce diagrams in the GoldList book. This for me was the biggest mental block until it dawned on me how best to do it. Let us say we are doing biology and the textbook has a nice diagram of the eye of the heart. In the headlist you make a pretty faithful copy, maybe even tracing it from the materials if it will fit, labels and all, and the number of lines that takes, that’s the line number we assume it deserves in the headlist.

When we come to the first distillation, we try to redraw the diagram with all the labels but we allow ourselves some compressions and abbreviations. I do find that a lot of D1 work on the non-language side is about compressing, abbreviating, omitting the repetitions you may have in the text which you didn’t notice to eliminate in the Headlist. The second distillation is usually the time when the labels which are obvious and the words remembered can be dropped out, the diagram more stylised, also made in a manner faster to draw, which can be a boon for examinations. Each time, that diagram will take fewer lines and maybe you can make the lines that it takes each time follow the same 30% reduction pattern that you expect from the non-diagrammatic parts of the GL work.

It’s actually pretty interesting to do. And it does tend to distil very well, because science is all about the a-ha moment, and running through the earlier parts of the text book by distilling what you did earlier before getting into a later section often refreshes all the bits you need to get that next a-ha moment all the more readily.

History dates also can be aha-ish. If you have a very bald list of almost random history dates, then maybe you have to put them over to the headlist like that in order to dispense with the materials. On distillation it is a question of grouping tchem in a more chroinological or thematic order, or finding a-has or other links between them. Sometimes you can imagine links that are purely fictional, for example Columbus sailed to the New World in 1492 which Lucia Pacioli invented double-entry bookkeeping in 1491, a year earlier, so you can imagine Columbus whiling away his time in the vessel trying to get his head around this new skill so that he would have a profession to come back to if there wasn’t a way to India that way after all, assuming he didn’t fall off. This can help us to remember what happened in what order, and also what was new at a time and what wasn’t. We make such a mental image not in a forced way, we merely think about what we are writing, not treating it just like lines set by a prefect for flicking ink at his back, we take an interest in how the events in the dates fit.

When learning history, we take advice from the maxim of Ralph Waldo Emerson:

“there is, properly, no history; only biography”

and concern ourselves with the lives of the characters we encounter there, and the interplay between them, whether they met, who would have been older and by how much, what they though of one another, etc. Then the dates start to come more alive, and this become the stuff of more permanent synapsę building. Learning dates as an ars gratia artis exercise will also work in the GLM, but will be less pleasant and less effective. One should include full dates in the headlist, but one should ask oneself whether, to build a very good panoramic view of history, one really needs the exact date, maybe month or even season of the year is adequate for some matters. If we look at how history is buidling now, we can almost talk about how the Brexit issue looked more decided in the Autumn of the year than in the Spring of 2019, but the key date of this is not clear. Certainly the election which gave Boris Johnson a decisive victory is known, but I already cannot remember which date of December that was, only that it was around the middle of the month and so it probably was with contemporaries of the events you may be studying in your history books.

Hope this helps.