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Explode into Action

Updated: Feb 7, 2020

We've already given you an overview of Flame, Fuse, Fire!, what the three parts to the technique are, and things to bear in mind when devising your versions of it. Now, we're going to give you some concrete examples of how you can use the technique.

Suppose I owe Gemma's Mum £5. I'm not going to see her at the school gate, so we've agreed that my daughter should give it to Gemma (her classmate) during the school day. Sounds like a plan. You've probably done that at some point, too. How can I be sure, though, that if I give my daughter a fiver, she will remember to hand it over? 'Sure' is a pretty strong word in this context, but what I can do is to give my daughter a technique to help her. Just as we used memory scaffolding techniques to support the memorisation process of things like lists, here we can use a memory prompt technique to remind her when to do something in the future. Enter Flame, Fuse, Fire!

1. Flame: We need an event or location as a starting point. Let's select the action of my daughter hanging up her coat on her school peg. That's a specific action that takes place every morning at school, immediately before she goes into the classroom, where she will see her classmate (if Gemma isn't actually standing near her at the pegs, of course). It's much more precise than 'when you get to school' or 'when you see Gemma' or 'sometime today'.

2. Fuse: We ask our daughter to imagine herself getting to her peg to find a jumper with £5 notes pinned all over it. She has to pick the jumper off her peg, feeling the soft fabric of the sweater and the shiny new notes pinned to it, seeing the colour contrast between the navy wool and the paler blue of the new plastic fivers. She can smell the money (have you ever sniffed a banknote? Yuk!) and hear it rustle as she moves the sweater. She then imagines herself giving the jumper to Gemma, who, in this mental image, is standing next to her. Our daughter can then hang up her coat.

3. Fire!: If all goes to plan, our daughter will get to school and, as she puts her coat on her peg, the Fuse image will pop into her mind and she will remember to give Gemma the £5 note that we had put in her schoolbag to hand over. Job done!

Use Flame, Fuse, Fire! to explode into action!

Flame, Fuse, Fire! is a very effective technique, but it won't work for everything. Here are four examples involving our daughter, who has been kind enough to act as our main guinea pig when testing our techniques.

1. I want my daughter to give her friend £5 when she gets to her school classroom tomorrow. This is the example we looked at above.

This is ideal for use with Flame, Fuse, Fire! because it has a single, well-defined action at a clearly-defined location and at a single time.

2. I want my daughter to sort out her room before she gets into bed at night.

This second example is a bit more fuzzy as an action, as there can be all sorts of meanings to 'sort out her bedroom'. Is it put away her clean clothes, tidy up her toys or put the read books back on the shelf instead of on the increasingly tall pile that would give the Empire State Building a run for its money? We’ll need to make this task more definite, for it to work. However, it does happen in a well-defined place, and regularly at the same time. So what we could do is use Flame, Fuse, Fire! to prompt her to do something (once we have clarified the task to be done), which we hope in time will become a good habit or routine.

3. I want my daughter to hand in this week’s maths homework when appropriate.

Here we have a well-defined task, but a very fuzzy time and place. We would need to decide on a specific time and place that will be best for her to hand over her homework in order for this to work effectively. However, as it's something that happens regularly, we could use Flame, Fuse, Fire! to help in the early stages of getting our daughter into a routine.

4. I want my daughter to be careful when she crosses the road.

This is fuzzy all round: there is no defined task, nor time. Coming to a road gives some solidity, but there are probably better options than Flame, Fuse, Fire! to help create this very, very important habit.

Flame, Fuse, Fire! works particularly well for one-off events, but it can be used along with other techniques if you want to create regular habits, such as tidying a room, or doing homework every evening. What we do here has a number of stages. First, we set up your Fire! (remember, this could be a single action like 'clean your teeth' or a routine that you have established using some kind of memory technique).

It takes time to develop an established habit, so in the early stages we can use the Flame, Fuse, Fire! technique to prompt the Learner to do the action or routine required. That is only the beginning, as the need to do the task will need to be reinforced regularly until the Learner can do it automatically without any memory prompts.

Let's look again at example 3 above, the homework. We had the well-defined task of 'hand in homework' but the time and place wasn't working. Ideally, she should be handing it in at the start of the school day. We found that homework was rearing its ugly head later, too, as she was often forgetting to bring newly-issued homework back with her. What we decided to do was to create an acronym that would work for both situations. This would be a simple memory construct that could be employed at the start and end of each school day. Furthermore, we would link the homework to other regular items she needed at similar times, which would hopefully strengthen the whole thing.

Our daughter needed to remember four things:

1. her clarinet (most days)

2. to hand in or pack her homework

3. anything unusual for/from school that day (e.g. to bring back a letter about a forthcoming school trip or take in one-off items to school for a particular activity)

4. her music bag (which might be needed even on days that she didn't have her clarinet, as our daughter learns more than one instrument)

We combined these four items using the mnemonic acronym CHUM. Remembering all these items would constitute the Fire! part of the technique.

The first thing she does each day at school is hang up her school bag on her peg. Just before she leaves school, the last thing of the school day, she reverses the process. This makes it a good, specific event where she is actively doing something in a specific place at the right time, so would make a perfect Flame.

When it came to the Fuse, she decided to imagine one of her friends playing the part of her CHUM. She then created a mental image of herself getting to her peg at school first thing in the morning, and finding her chum Gemma hanging from the peg by the collar. Therefore, our daughter would have to lift her chum off the peg in order to hang up her school bag. In the afternoon, the reverse would happen. She would take her school bag off the peg and hang her chum Gemma back on it.

When we tried this out in practice, we found that it tended to work well in the mornings when our daughter was fresh. It worked less well in the evening when she was tired, excited at the prospect of going home, and gossiping with her pals on the way out of the classroom. However, in both cases, it worked a lot better than nothing.

Note: the acronym still worked well - if we greeted her at the end of the path with "Have you done your CHUM?" she could immediately identify if there was something she had forgotten to hand in or pick up and would run back in to do so. The Flame, Fuse, Fire! technique, however, seemed to be a lot more variable.

Up to this point, we have used Flame, Fuse Fire! with our daughter as an aid to forming a habit more than we have used it to remember one-off events. The very simple reason for this is that, at age 9, she doesn’t have a large number of one-off things she has to remember as she is going about her daily life, whereas there are all sorts of good habits we would really, really like her to get into under particular circumstances to make both her life and ours better. An older child, or you as an adult, might find you have more one-off events where it could be pressed into service.

Whether you have a single task that you want to remember, or a combined 'set' of tasks, there are important factors to bear in mind.

1. Be as specific as possible with the task (or set of tasks) you want your child to remember. If necessary, use an mnemonic acronym or a memory palace to 'clump' the tasks into a single item.

2. Make the time, event or location (i.e. the Flame) as clear and distinctive as possible. It should be as relevant to the task (Fire!) as possible - if there is a 'disconnect' between them (i.e. they are not close in time or space), the Learner is less likely to remember that the Flame and Fire! are linked and, as we've said before, the Flame could go out before igniting the Fire!

3. At the Fuse stage, get the children to establish a good mental image of themselves doing the action (i.e. Fire!), particularly if this involves doing a group of tasks rather than one. Active imagery is much more important than passively 'viewing' the action in their head.

4. Ensure the child makes the image as personal as possible. It's not your image that counts, but what is in their head. Having said that, be sure to give them plenty of examples until they get the hang of the technique, but let them take it to the next stage by themselves to take 'ownership' of the image.

5. Use whatever you can to motivate your child to take the action, as far as possible. Children quite often don't consider a lot of the tasks they may have to do at this point as 'fun' so anything that can be done to change that perception will help. Try and add a fun or group element to the task in some way if you can, or make it worth their while to complete the task successfully (e.g. reward charts, stickers etc.).

6. Emphasise the importance of tasks, particularly if you are trying to establish a habit. Sadly, most habits are not fun, but if you can make it a group activity, they might be more inclined to engage. Alternatively, why not do your chores at the same time? E.g. your child could do their music practice while you wash the dishes. That way, you both do chores together and you can monitor what is going on.

7. If they do need a reminder, particularly in the early stages, do try not to tell them what they have to do, but ask them to think what they should be doing. For instance, "Have you done your CHUM today?" would be a better question than "Have you remembered your homework?"; mention the Flame that you've agree with them and ask "What should that remind you of?" or "What should you be doing next?"

Our blog Damp Squibs talks about some of the limitations of the Flame, Fuse, Fire! technique.

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