Friday, March 9, 2012

The Death of Memorization

There have been countless movies in the past few years where the idea of instant knowledge has been given super human status. Films like The Matrix and Limitless toy with the ability for a normal human to be instantaneously given the ability to carry out a task or have some level of knowledge about a subject.

For example, your car breaks down on the freeway and you have never fixed a car in your life and possibly have never even opened up the hood to see what an engine looks like. At this point in time, you summon your special abilities ( push on a charm or pound fists with your friend and say something about wonder twin powers activating) and batta bing! You now realize that your spark plug cable is loose. You know exactly what cylinder of your car is the problem. You identify the correct area of the engine, push on the cable, the car starts and you are on your way.

Sounds crazy, I know but quite honestly, I sometimes think that people do not realize how close we are to that scenario. Welcome to the age of mobile computing, where we do have the ability to acquire knowledge about a subject no matter where you are. If you are fortunate enough to have access to a smart phone, you already carry the ability to acquire knowledge at a rapid rate. That is, if you know where the information is.

I recently was approached by a student of mine asking if I could give him a definition from a study guide for a mid term. Being the empowering teacher that I am, I quickly informed him that I would not give him the definition and he needed to find it himself. I also asked him if he had tried to look it up on Google, because that is where I usually go to find information about a topic. He looked at me as he was having his "A HA" moment and quickly pulled out his smart phone only to find the same definition that I gave him in class.

So the $25 question is..... If we have the ability to summon any piece of information we need at any given time, why as teachers do we still think our students need to memorize content? In Math class, the discussion focuses on the use of a calculator vs. memorizing multiplication facts. Most third grade students will ask this very question as they get tired looking at flash cards.

Traditionalists would tell you that a memorized body of knowledge shows intelligence. I do not disagree but I also think since vast amounts of information is now readily available at the touch of a button, we also have to enable our students to think about those possibilities as well. Do they really have to memorize who Abraham Lincoln's first wife is when they can push a button on their iPhone and ask Siri?

Most times that I have needed to know something in my professional career, I have not been required to have answers off the top of my head. I have been required, though, to know where to get those answers in a timely fashion and to evaluate if that answer is the correct one. Fortunately, I have been able to hone the art of Googling for some time now and it has served me well.

By the way... Siri told me Abraham Lincoln's first wife's name was Mary Todd.

Thank you Siri...


  1. BA taught me, in 1999, how to learn, how to approach learning. The focus was on the process, not the content or the end result as much as it was about ways of learning the material. That is still essential with the advent of technology that provides answers faster. The ability to discern the right answer, to see through the biased information, the skewed, etc is still valuable and always will be (especially during election cycles!). Teachers decades ago were encouraged to push facts down students throats, and prepare them for their lives as factory workers. The majority of the US education system still approaches teaching/learning in this way. Like other industries (banking, entertainment, communication) who have been powerfully disrupted by technology, education faces the same fate. Pioneers (you) saw this coming, and are actively pushing for change, while many administrators and the general public are still blaming the old system for its flaws and ignoring the massive change that is already underway. Khan Academy is a great example of a major disruption many people are completely unaware of. I have a two-year old daughter, and I am confident I will not be sending her to "college" as we currently know it. This poses a problem for me as a dad who needs to budget money for her education in the future. Should I budget for a $100k/year institution (I can't). Should I budget for an online education? (How much?) Another topic entirely, but related as the idea of how to learn, what to learn, and where to learn it is all being challenged more than we ever thought possible.

  2. Thanks for your comment Dave... I too have been concerned about what will happen to the college world, both from my perspective at BA here and being the father of a 16 year old who is about to enter that world. Good to hear that in some ways we at BA hit the mark for you....