Why I think students need to memorize.

Yesterday I watched a TEDx video from Jeff Jarvis who said that students do not need to “memorize in the age of Google”. Why would you need to memorize things that can be looked up in a moment from a device we carry in our pocket? I have often heard and agreed with this comment in the past. While “rote” memorization is generally a thing of the past, I am now rethinking the idea that students do not need to memorize. Students need to remember enough basic knowledge to be able to innovate. They also need to be able to critically examine data they find on the Internet—this requires background knowledge and experiences.

Google is apparently increasing our ability to remember how to find information on the internet or stored on our computers. Recent studies of post secondary students have shown that they remember less information when they know that they will have access to the information in the future. However, they were better at remembering how to find the information a second time than those who were told they would have no access. In addition, we are developing a shared memory with our social network and the “web” similar to how “one partner in a married couple might be better at remembering birthdays, while the other might specialise in bank details. Together, they have a ‘transactive memory’, a collective store of information that each can draw upon.”

However, are we able to access the best information? Google does not provide the same search results to different people, even with identical search terms. The results are filtered by algorithms based on which browser you use, the past searches you have made, where you are, and which computer you are using, along with over 50 other “signals”. For example, one person might type in the word “Egypt” and the search results on the first page would be factual items like Wikipedia, travel sites, and the World Factbook.  Another person with the same search using only “Egypt” might get items on the riots and crisis in Egypt of 2011 along with the factual information.  This personalization is happening in many other places on the Internet like Facebook and many news sites. We may be getting information that suits our preferences, but are we getting the information we need to understand our world and differing perspectives? Until there is some sort of Internet news “watchdog” that ensures objectivity or civic responsibility, our students need to be able to remember enough factual information to judge the reliability of the information they are receiving.

Creating new ideas also requires an abundance of background knowledge and experiences.  We can get the students to research an issue before brainstorming solutions. However, in order for students to write about that solution, they need to have a large vocabulary. You can think of an idea and search for a word to match that idea, but it is doubtful that you will always be successful. Memorizing the periodic table seems illogical, but students often do not know what they will do after high school. They may want to become a pharmacist or a bioengineer. In that case, they will need to memorize at least the first 20 elements of the periodic table. You can have a periodic table in front of you at all times (on paper or device), but will you be able to make any significant discoveries if the information needed is not readily available in your mind? I believe creativity requires knowledge and experiences from many diverse subjects in order for the mind to be able to transcend the obvious and create something new.

Regardless of whether we think Google is destroying our mind’s ability to remember or not, it’s here to stay. Personal devices are only going to increase in number and functionality. That’s why it’s important to teach our students how to access quality information. They need to be able to critically examine both their search results and the sites they visit. It’s hard to be critical of someone else’s ideas without any background knowledge—memorized or at least familiar. That being said, I am not suggesting that students memorize lists of vocabulary words, multiplication tables or elements. It is not the simple memorization of facts that will improve our students’ ability to innovate and think critically. Authentic, rich tasks create experiences and connections that deepen memory. These tasks also increase students’ problem-solving and communication skills. Teachers need to design learning opportunities that help students remember or “memorize” knowledge to ensure their success as citizens of the 21st century.