Wissot: Googling your way to useful information: Why rote memorization is outdated (column)
July 20, 2018
Memorization was never my strong suit when I began kindergarten almost 70 years ago.
In those bygone days, memorization was what school was all about. I began badly by struggling with the memorization of letters and numbers. From there, my trajectory descended rapidly. I did poorly in word recognition, spelling and mastering multiplication. When it came to success at school, I was like the parachutist who only realized he had forgotten his parachute after he jumped from the plane: doomed.
Thinking about school then from the vantage point of today's uber technology, I feel compelled to ask the question: Why bother to memorize anything now? Do kids really need to memorize who the 23rd president was? It was Benjamin Harrison. I just Googled it.
Why spend hours memorizing arcane rules for spelling? Is it "i" before "e" except after "c" or the other way around? We have spellcheck now. Every time I misspell something, the correct spelling comes up magically on my computer. Does anyone really benefit from having the date of the Battle of Antietam stored in the deeper recesses of their brain? I'm not sure what it is. Please go to a search engine and tell me.
I would much prefer students remembered it was the bloodiest battle of the American Civil War and that the war was the culmination of a centuries-long struggle to end slavery. For that kind of conceptual grasp, you need something more than mere memorization. You need to have a comprehensive understanding of how the forces for and against slavery played out against one another. A picture in your mind of who the major actors in that struggle were and why the issue mattered so much to both sides is necessary. Memorization of factual details will not get you there.
We have replaced having information with having access to information. A wise professor of mine in a college sociology class decades ago told us that what separated professors from students was not that they were so much smarter but that they knew where to look to find the information that allowed them to be smart. He told us his job was to teach us where to look. That, to him, was much more important than whatever we found.
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Recent research proves my professor's wisdom by distinguishing between two kinds of memory: recall and recognition. Recall memory is what I struggled with as a kindergartner.
The research tells us that in the internet age "recall memory — the ability to spontaneously call information up in your mind — has become less necessary, while recognition memory has superseded it." So long as you know where to find that information and how to access it, then you don't really need to recall it ("Why We Forget Most of the Books We Read," Julie Beck, The Atlantic, January 26, 2018).
I'm not opposed to the internet. As a tool to obtain useful information, it's terrific. Who should be buying travel insurance? Check. Why is the flag flying at half-mast today? Check. When does summer officially begin? Check. But when it comes to substantive knowledge, all the internet can do is lead me to a myriad of possibly promising sources. It's up to me to figure out the rest.
In the golden age of my youth I would have had to shlep down to my local library to research a topic assigned at school and find the books I would need to read in order to complete the assignment. Kids today can do much of the same research and read many of the same books online. I call that progress. The same kind of progress that allows me to order a pizza and have it delivered without having to pick up a phone and speak to someone.
It's technology suited to a world where instant gratification is the new norm. Isn't that reinforcing our worst emotional tendencies, you might ask? Perhaps. But please remember the same technology that allows us to get a pizza delivered really fast also allows a ninth-grader manipulating his smartphone to get a great head start on finding out where black holes come from.
Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail. Email him at email@example.com.