Sunday, May 02, 2010

Because It Was the Only Way

Norman Constantine left a really striking comment on a post here recently, saying:
"We memorized before the internet not because it was the best way to learn but because it was the only way to have recall."
Would love to hear folks' opinions; I think Norman may have struck on something very interesting: traditionally, we think of prior knowledge generally as an internal thing; but could we not imagine a future where prior knowledge is a public or external thing?

And how best would we teach our kids in such a world? By continuing to plug knowledge into them or by plugging them into the knowledge?


  1. Actually not. Memorization was "old school" once literacy was invented - why Socrates was against literacy. But schools are VERY slow to change.

    We invented literacy so we could look things up, as slow as that method was, as tied to wealth as it was. Now we have other choices, better choices, faster choices, and choices which allow far more people into "the information society."

    Except, not in schools.

  2. @narrator

    True, to an extent.

    But since the days of Socrates, we've seen literacy itself go through stages of fullness and famine. So I'd argue that there's really no such thing as a consistent history of literate culture (and of course -- what do we mean by culture, anyway?).

    Even if we just look at the immediate experience of the education of immigrants over the last 125 years, we see an ongoing shift in definitions of 'literacy' tied up with shifts in definitions of 'culture'.

    And yes, as you say, literacy has long been tied to wealth -- and to power.

    My father didn't learn to speak English until he was in first grade; he was considered the typical illiterate son of an immigrant. Yet he, of course, had gained an enormous amount of prior knowledge by the time he was seven or eight years old. And this of course happens over and over throughout our culture, especially with regards to immigrant enclaves and second-language acquisition.

    So I see a distinction to be made between 'prior knowledge' and 'literacy' and I am wondering how the distinction plays out in the connected information society.


  3. Prior knowledge and having facts memorized is still important for deeper learning, even in the age of Google. We can only keep about 7 things in our working memory at once, so if we're analyzing history, for example, we'll need important information - such as details of important events and how they relate to each other - organized and ready for retrieval from our long-term memory.

    It just won't cut it to look up information as we go. For more on this, I suggest "Why Don't Students Like School?" by Dan Willingham.

  4. Depends on the information Chris. For example, I was just saying yesterday that I rarely even bother to worry about memorizing keyboard shortcuts. If I get lost, I Google it, and get the answer. I'm quite good at converting Celsius to Fahrenheit (double and add 30) but its just as fast to switch my phone's or browser's settings (and that 5/9ths thing, forget it).

    Of course I like knowledge, and building knowledge, and in my experience this occurs much more effectively socially, either on or off-line.

    My "network" and search skills, by presenting fast answers in engaging formats, build the information in my brain, the way little American boys used to build their baseball stats memory via baseball cards.

    If I believed that books, or memorization really worked as a knowledge construction system for most people, I'd expect more than half of Americans to know that New Mexico is a state, that Hawaii was NOT a state in December 1941, that the earth is more than 5,000 years old. But that's not what I see. So... there I am.


    (not a Willingham fan... he's too removed from actual research, and too accepting of other's research strategies for my taste. Plus, until I mentioned it to him in 2008, he'd never heard of post-modernism.)

  5. I like to think I am plugging them into knowledge. I teach middle school science and a good deal of what my students know, they've heard or seen before... what I do is not reguritate this data but use their knowledge of it to take their learning to the next level. ex. we learned about the 5 senses this year. Everyone knows basics about seeing, hearing, tasting, touching and smelling. But what do they know about why taste and smell go together? what happens when you can't see but can hear? how is the relationship of the senses to the brain and what parts of the brain make all of this work?

    we had a ball learning about WHY the senses work together and how the brain compensates when necessary to keep us safe (they didn't know that's that the senses do, so new knowledge right up front)

  6. Great quote. Great question. Here's what I've been up to lately:

    When working with students and helping them find answers to the questions they ask, I often can't remember the details of something I've read or seen, but we quickly turn to Google or Google Reader or my Tumblr or (mostly and first) my Delicious account or any combination of them all. I refer to these tools, and the internet in general, as "my outboard memory". In the process of searching (or memory recall, if you will), many other useful and/or better resources appear. As such, I don't expect students to have facts memorized, but to understand how to find them and see the patterns that emerge, so they can fit them together to build understanding.

    PS: Steven Johnson recently wrote about commonplace books and how "just about anyone with intellectual ambition in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was likely to keep" one. My Delicious account is my Internet-Age commonplace book.

  7. @Robertogreco

    Thanks for the link to that article mentioning commonplace books. I agree with the idea of Delicious and the like as "outboard memory". And because it is essentially "shared" memory live on the Internet (ie our memory out there working for us even when we are doing other things... like sleeping) it's a perfect example of knowledge as public and external.


  8. I agree that the internet makes the memory of many facts irrelevant. However, I also worry about that loss of connection to the broader human experience which will be lost if little or nothing is stored in memory. The ability to recall a line of poetry and connect it to present experience--the ability to compare politics now with politics 100 years ago--the ability to catch allusions (and make them--I've had at three students put Communist Manifesto allusions in papers since we read it earlier this semester)--all that will be lost if people don't have knowledge in their heads. I remember reading the Cross of Gold speech with some students in an AP US History class. The speech is full of biblical allusions, and to understand its impact on listeners in 1896 you need to understand its quasi-religious character--but all those allusions were lost on my students. In short, my fear is that individuals' experience of the world will become impoverished. To some extent this is inevitable--we need footnotes to explain references in Shakespeare's plays now--and one generation's meaningful allusions are another generation's annoying facts to memorize. Still, the historian William Braithwaite once wrote that the goal of history education was to help a student realize "that his life is part of a great stream of national life that has been running for a thousand years feel the organic relation of life today with the life of the past." That "historic sense," as I sometimes call it, is hard to have unless you actually have a certain amount of information in your brain, so you can make associations. If it's not in your memory somewhere, you won't even know to make the connection.


  9. I have followed this discussion with heightened interest since making the front page. I have a ton of "knowledge" in my head. Human recall is faulty however. What I wonder is how much of it is wrong? What knowing about Jennings Bryan's speech is not it biblical allusions but its connections to Sarah Palin, Creationism, and the religious right.

    "Though shalt not press down upon the brow of learners this crown of thorns, thought shalt not crucify students on this cross of memorization!" Not sure the paraphrase is correct but then it came from my head!

  10. I'm not sure this is something we can stop nor concern ourselves with. I think everything will work itself out. In the '70s, everyone talked about how the future generation was falling by the wayside, but look how far we have come since then.

  11. Great statement. I've been thinking about this alot when it comes to high stakes standardized testing. Shouldn't students be allowed to take the ACT with a laptop next to them?

    What do you do when you don't know something? You google it! Why do students have to "know" it? Isn't it more important to test students if they can find the answer? Using the Internet to problem solve is a skill every adult should have--thats what I wish we could assess!


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