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Enkhmunkh, 17, one of Mongolia’s most talented memory competitors, demonstrates his skills at the Mongolian Intellectual Academy in Ulan Bator in April.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

The class starts simply enough, with a teacher discussing the periodic table of elements – hydrogen, lithium, sodium – and sketching the atomic differences between them.

But it quickly takes an unexpected turn. This is not a lesson in chemistry. It's a lesson in committing scientific fundamentals to memory, part of a unique experiment in Mongolia to build national intelligence by training youth to become human computers.

Behind it is a man with a unique, if debatable vision – that to propel this small, middle-income country to petro-state-style riches, its children need to learn the skills required to instantly recall the makeup of Earth's elements.

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"We can remember this," Baasandorj, the class teacher, tells the two dozen students, as he points to the periodic table on a whiteboard. "Everything: The letters, the numbers and the sequences, which element is where."

He quickly travels down the first column turning letters and numbers into vivid images that help things stick in their minds. The more outrageous, the better. Hydrogen gets a story about a bank building that's running in the street holding a pole and looking to kill wild game. The visual shortcuts in that story offer a way to remember the name of the element, its atomic number and its atomic mass.

Then Baasandorj, who like many Mongolians goes by one name, erases the whiteboard. He tells the students, some of them just 11 years old, to write the first column onto a blank sheet from memory. There are virtually no errors.

As the one-hour class finishes, he tells them what they will do next time: memorize the entire periodic table.

In any other classroom, such a demand might seem impossible. But at the Mongolian Intellectual Academy, students routinely perform seemingly super-human feats, reading at 1,500 words per minute, mentally adding together long strings of numbers, rapidly multiplying eight-digit numbers without a calculator and flawlessly memorizing the order of a deck of cards – the discipline's 100-metre dash – in barely 20 seconds.

They have made their sprawling and little-developed country, home to one of the world's last nomadic cultures, into an unlikely titan in the obscure world of mental athletics, a field that includes speed-memorizing and other cognitive triumphs. In the most recent world memory statistics, nine of the top 50 people are Mongolian. Only China, with 14, has more. The United States has just three; Germany has eight.

Among junior competitors, eight of the top 10 worldwide today are Mongolian.

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Their godfather is Khatanbaatar, the fast-talking force behind the Mongolian Intellectual Academy, who first encountered competitive memorizing while watching the news at law school in Turkey.

What bowled him over was a line at the end of the report: "'Anybody can do it; it's just a technique and a method.' That one sentence changed my life," he said.

Learn to remember, and law exams would be a breeze, he figured.

He dashed off to an Internet café and fell headlong into an obsession. When he exhausted what he could learn online, he began training under Melik Duyar, the co-founder of the Memoriad games held every four years – synchronized with the Olympics – and the closest thing memorizing has to a global star.

Khatanbaatar returned to Mongolia, but quickly abandoned law. It had become a distraction from burnishing memory techniques, for himself and others.

"I thought – there are many Mongolian kids who have hidden talents. I wanted to reach out to them and develop all those kids," he said. In 2009, he began pitching his services. By 2011, he held Mongolia's first national memory championships.

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Now, he estimates he has trained more than 15,000 people in different mental sports, some as old as 70.

He attributes the prowess of Mongolian memorizers to a "natural gift" as quick learners, perhaps a product of life on the steppe, where nimble thinking helped people survive wickedly cold winters. Nomads also had incentive to commit to memory rather than use paper that would be heavy and cumbersome to move. Even today, many herders can visually differentiate hundreds of their own animals from those belonging to neighbouring families without relying on tags or brands.

Now, Khatanbaatar says it's time to build that skill into modern savvy. Convinced memory techniques hold the key to overcoming Mongolia's struggling academic performance, he has begun rewriting the entire national curriculum to incorporate those methods.

This fall, he will open a primary school, with plans to open a middle and a high school, too, in coming years. He has already experimented with young children, teaching multiplication tables to five-year-olds.

What he wants is convincing proof that his methods are effective.

"My goal is to eventually introduce this system to the whole national schooling system," he said.

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"The eventual dream would be to change this country, to develop it. We have a population of only three million. I want to make it as prosperous a nation as maybe the United Arab Emirates. I want Mongolians to be world leaders."

In schools, at least, the need for change is obvious.

The rigours of a Soviet education system collapsed with the Soviet Union. In the years that followed, Mongolian leaders first worked to rebuild political and economic systems.

In the past decade, in an effort to modernize education, the country expanded mandatory education to 12 years. High-school enrolment has risen from just over 60 per cent in 1996 to more than 90 per cent in 2011.

But authorities have struggled to teach effectively. In 2014, the World Bank warned about "alarmingly low performance" among Mongolian students.

Enter Khatanbaatar and his plan to build modernity through memory. The raw material is there: Several IQ rankings have placed Mongolians in the top 10 among nations.

"We need to innovate education in Mongolia," he said.

Of course, his argument assumes a person who is better at memorizing is also better at other tasks, like thinking creatively or drawing meaning from data.

But are quick-recall skills useful for anything beyond counting cards or nerdy parlour tricks?

The ancient Greeks thought so: Today's mnemonic techniques date back to fifth-century B.C., a time when the printed word was scarce and therefore to remember was also, for many, to know.

Does that still make any sense in an age when all the world's knowledge can zip instantaneously into your hand?

"Memorization applies to only small parts of the curriculum," like rapidly acquiring foreign language vocabulary lists or simplifying some mathematical operations, said Robert Slavin, director of the Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University, and the author of an educational psychology textbook with a section on memory strategies.

"It is difficult to see how the main goals of education, such as reading comprehension, math problem solving, science concepts, or writing clearly and effectively would be enhanced by memorization," he said.

"I have never seen such an effect demonstrated or even suggested."

The parents who bring their kids to Khatanbaatar's academy are, however, convinced.

Batkhishig's six-year-old daughter started memory studies in kindergarten. Now in first grade, "she's one of the top students in her school. She is really good at math and she is very fast," he said. Batkhishig is not a rich man: He sells clothes imported from Turkey at a market stall. But he is keen to send his daughter to Khatanbaatar's school when it opens.

That school, if nothing else, will provide a sizable test of whether memorizing has a classroom benefit.

For Mongolia, however, it's already paid other dividends. The country's heroes have long been its wrestlers. Now, its master memorizers are the ones trouncing rivals.

In early March, Mongolian memory champion Enkhmunkh, 17, was invited to appear on Super Brain, a Chinese game show whose tasks include looking at a matrix of 225 numbers for 1.5 seconds – and then locating a single digit.

The Chinese contestant had already won several times.

But Enkhmunkh and a team of other international contestants beat her. He returned to huge cheering at home.

"A representative of a nation of only three million won over someone from a population of 1.3 billion," Enkhmunkh said.

"People said, 'we are proud of our Mongolian son, who actually beat a Chinese master.'"

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