Featured post

7 Life Lessons: A Letter to My Students

Graduations remind me of diving boards: parents and teachers become spectators, waiting to see each student jump, spring, and dive into ...

Monday, 17 September 2012

Search versus Memory: The price we pay

I just finished reading 'The Shallows,' by Nick Carr. In his book, Carr explores how human societies and individual human brains are shaped and changed by the tools we invent. Through a detailed examination of tools ranging from clocks and maps to the printing press and the internet, Carr discusses how these tools change how we think.

 While I enjoyed the entire book,  I was particularly fascinated by Carr's questions about the costs of outsourcing our human memories to machines.  Carr draws sharp distinctions between the way human memory functions and the way computer/technological memories function. He describes the organic way that our human memories grow and change, claiming that the act of memorizing and remembering is in fact an act of learning and understanding. He looks at memory formation at the neuronal level, examining how the creation of  "long-term memories" causes extensive synaptic connections to be forged, thereby consolidating our understandings of the information that we "memorized."

 Our memories are also linked to each other and highly contextualized. Sometimes a particular phrase or song or fragrance can cause a host of old memories to come flooding back to us. In contrast to the organic, changeable, and web-like structure of our human memories, the memories of machines are fixed and unchanging. When a machine remembers, it doesn't process or link or associate memories. A machine's memories don't change with time.

Carr poses a number of questions about the costs of outsourcing our memories to machines. When we stop learning, processing, and remembering information and rely on Google instead, what are we giving up? Our intellect? Our cultures? Our identities?

When I first started blogging, I explored the role of memorization in contemporary education in a post titled Does Memory Matter? I examined the long history of memorization as the centerpiece in education, and then ended by wondering whether memorization had become an obsolete tool of the past. Today, educators routinely devalue the role of memory in education. Why should students memorize anything when they have Google? Our kids have unlimited access to information, so remembering information seems unecessary. In a world of hyperlinked text, we can just click on a link for background information, vocabulary definitions, and any other information we may need. We don't have to remember any of it, so why bother? As a teacher myself, I rarely makes students memorize anything, and at various times in my career I have asserted that memorizing is not the same thing as learning.

However, I now wonder whether my attitude towards memorization is somehow mistaken.  Nick Carr's book has made me wonder whether memorization of some sort should stay in our curriculum, despite the presence of Google and the internet. Perhaps we need to make sure that we keep our memories sharp because it is through the process of transferring short-term memories into our long-term memories that we actually begin to understand and appreciate  information of any sort. We need to know information to really process and understand it, and knowing perhaps requires some level of memorization.

 Perhaps students should memorize the definitions of words instead of relying on hyperlinks in e-books or the spotlight function on their MacBooks. Perhaps students should memorize beautiful poetry so that they truly understand and appreciate the rhythm, rhyme, structure, and meaning of the lines. Perhaps students should actively learn and remember historical "facts" so that they can not only understand and process the information but also analyze and critique it. Without a basic storehouse of knowledge in our own brains, true intellectual understanding and appreciation may not occur.

And furthermore, without engaging in the act of memorization, students may lose out on the cognitive benefits associated with "studying" and "remembering." If we stop transferring memories from our short-term working memories to our long-term memories, our brains may not forge the new neural circuits and synaptic pathways that accompany the creation of long-term memories.

Nick Carr does not advocate meaningless rote memorization, and neither do I. However, some degree of "repeated learning" of content and skills may, in fact, be beneficial to students. Conversely, a complacent attitude towards the current trend of outsourcing our own memories to the Internet may be coutner-productive and even harmful. An interesting perspective to mull over as I plan my lessons!


  1. Well, I for one can guarantee that outsourcing basic computing to calculators has decreased our mental math ability. Simple tasks like how much change we'll get back in a shop have become a problem for many including me.

  2. True. In his book, Carr jokes that the smarter our machines are, the dumber we get. We sort of outsource our own intelligence, in a way.