In the age of Google, do we still have to memorize things? Seems like a strange question, but many educators are experiencing significant pushback from students who resist memorizing information that can be found online in an instant. What’s the point? ask students, who complain about what they see as “an incredible waste of time,” when facing rote memorization or similar seemingly repetitious assignments.
A few years back, Don Tapscott (author of Wikinomics, Growing Up Digital, Grown Up Digital) made headlines with his pronouncement that for the “net generation…memorizing facts and figures is a waste of time.” Most faculty in med school, law school, engineering, history, music, and well, just about every department and program across every higher ed campus would likely disagree with Tapscott’s blanket statement. But his observations are (as always) insightful and provocative, and surely most educators would agree that ideally, creative, applied, problem-based pedagogies are preferable to rote memorization. And as Tapscott points out, today professors and students alike are letting the internet do some of the cognitive heavy lifting when it comes to fact-checking. But memorization still has a time and place in school and out, in the age of Google and even for those with the smartest of smartphones.
For example, last week The New York Times profiled a typical case that illustrates the importance of memorization for those (perhaps infrequent) times when even the most highly wired among us are unexpectedly unplugged, gadgetless and disconnected from the information superhighway and off the grid of our friend networks. When “Travis Erickson, 21, discovered that his cellphone had been either stolen or lost in the sand he also discovered that he was stranded.” Why? Because he didn’t know his girlfriend’s cell phone number. “I never had to know it,” Mr. Erickson told The New York Times, “because it was always in my pocket on my phone.” The journalist suggests that as “cellphone address books and other technological advances do our remembering for us” there may be a negative “impact on our ability to memorize” information. Not knowing his girlfriend’s phone number certainly had a negative effect for Mr. Erickson. She broke up with him.
The Times offered Travis Erikson’s story as one thread in the fabric of our information culture, where high-speed connectivity spreads far and wide, and more consumers opting for feature-rich, web-ready smartphones and dataplans. Today, access to basic information, fast facts, phone numbers, simple calculations, and real-time updates, are all readily on screen, at hand. Why memorize, when you can speed-dial or Google-it? Why memorize, when there’s Wikipedia and YouTube, crowdsourced sites rich with up-to-date information and history? Why remember when a quick status update nets your information courtesy of trusted sources on Facebook or Twitter?
Clearly this perspective is more likely to be heard from the connected class, millennials, digital natives, urbanites, and lifehackers among us. Armed with multifunctional handheld consumer electronics in pockets and purses, we’re outsourcing our digits and data to Google, Facebook, Apple, and RIM. The result is increased productivity and pace in a culture characterized by instantaneity and information overload–but the flipside is decreased cognitive workouts.
Between mobile technologies, cloud computing, and Google-cached culture, it seems we are forgetting how to remember, and opting out of everyday memory work—with many none too worried about it. But back on campus, many are concerned with the cost of digitizing memory and resistance to rote memorization activities in the classroom.
Memorization and Analytic Thinking
When students ask, What’s the point? We might wonder, is there a negative impact on intelligence when we trust Google and Android have our back? In response, scientists are quick to weigh in on the importance of working memory workouts to keep the brain healthy.
And educators point out that memorizing basic building blocks of data is the foundation for constructing advanced knowledge and sharp analytic ability. “Having a foundation of knowledge is necessary for more complex thinking,” observes educator Chris Fritz. “If a student does not know and cannot discuss very basic concepts,” writes one insightful educator on Yahoo! Answers, “then that student will never be able to get to higher level critical thinking.”
Digital Tools and Memory Work
To combine the best of both worlds then, mixing digital and traditional learning styles, technoprofs and digital natives could consider using flashcard apps on their iPhones/iPads, their Androids/BlackBerrys, or any laptop a digital tool to help students memorize facts and figures while on-the-go.
As well, infographics may make memorizing information easier for students who respond well to visual learning methods. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then infographics are an ideal, data-dense, mobile-friendly learning tool.