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If memorization is no longer important, how will students be tested?

January 12, 2014

Remember when the answer was on the tip of your tongue? Perhaps you were out with friends talking about “That movie with that guy, you know, that guy who was in that other movie with Al Pacino.”

We don’t live in that world anymore.

Now think of your typical 10-year old. That person never lived in that world. That person will never be in a situation where they can’t find an answer.

If you’re of a certain age, you can remember talking about that guy in that movie. The answer was on the tip if your tongue. Someone tossed out names, you argued, rejected, went quiet. There were some moments in which you never got the answer.

That was then.

Clearly that is no longer a thing. Undoubtably, there is someone in your group who does a Google or IMDB search and voila – that guy was Stephen Tobolowsky, and he did an AMA on Reddit.

Image representing Reddit as depicted in Crunc...

Image via CrunchBase

If you’re old enough to remember having the answer on the tip of your tongue, then you’re old enough to have lived in a world that prized memorization.

We were tested on our ability to retain facts. Who won the war of 1812? How many people signed the declaration of Independence? How many elements on the periodic table?

For the last question, there’s a solid chance that a ten-year old has the periodic table app. We’re past the point of needing to know the number of elements, and we’re at the point where we need to know why.

That said, our education is moving the other way. The education in the US is moving more towards testing and measurement. As the world moves away from the need to know details, the schools move towards the need to know details.

I don’t know the right answer here, but I feel like it is more on the side of why, and less on the side of what.  The correct live is important, since the 10 year old will be coming to Higher Ed in seven years. In higher ed, they’ll be asked to turn from what to why. It won’t be the first time, since they’ll be over a decade into having the answers at the their fingertips.

So what do you think? Should we still prize memorization?  Am I on the wrong track?

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 16, 2014 1:26 am

    I think we need to strike a balance between the two: the memorization and the smart-phone-powered look-up. For example one recent beer-fueled conversation came round to discussing the foods that could be brought at Spittlefields Market. We’d all lived in London at one point or another and all now live in Canada – it was fun to remember and reminisce until one person says “I don’t remember a market at Spittlefields – where was it?” Over a decade has passed since we were last there, so out came the smart pone and very quickly there’s a map of the market and it’s location within London, access via tube, opening hours and so much more than we wanted or even cared about.

    Part of the discussion needs to be – what do we want to memorize, and what is it safe to look up? That 10 year old needs to recall his basic times-tables without an iPhone. Later he will (might) need to know about the explosive reaction between metallic Sodium and Water. Should he memorize that, or look it up? I guess that depends if he’s about to wash his hands with sodium under his fingernails.

    • January 16, 2014 9:10 am

      Hi Tony, thanks for your note.

      All valid points. Reminds me of a story: my dad used to talk about the 4 mile walk to school he had in North London. One day, we looked it up. Turned out, it was a 1.6 mile walk.

      It sort of felt like an affront to him memory, and made him sad. We talked about the walk, and how as a child things seem bigger, and memory is fluid anyway.

      I’ve had fun sitting around thinking about my past, and debating distances and movies, and actors. My kids won’t have that experience. We can’t make that not true, so we just have to move on and figure out what a world with information in your pocket will look like. And how we’ll engage with kids.

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