The Digital Age, Memory and Learning

    by Paul Barnwell
    July 11, 2012
    Mobile devices provide a boundless wealth of information at our fingertips, but are they also putting our brains to disuse? Photo by Jennifer Conley on Flickr and www.iliveindallas.com and used with Creative Commons license.

    I remember plenty of seven-digit numbers from my youth — the Gabrielli’s home phone, the Young’s, and the Bardo’s among them. I probably had about 20 numbers cataloged in my 12-year-old brain.

    I remember memorizing directions to ride my bike to various swimming holes in Concord, N.H., including the old train bridge spanning the Merrimack River off I-93′s exit 16. I remember reciting state capitals, spelling lists, and multiplication tables in school.

    It's a valid question as to how much information we should -- or have to -- memorize when everything you could ever want to discover or be reminded of is a mouse click or swipe away."

    Now, I honestly don’t have my fiancée Rebecca’s phone number memorized.


    It’s a valid question as to how much information we should — or have to — memorize when everything you could ever want to discover or be reminded of is a mouse click or swipe away. Researcher Tracy Dennis’ recent post on her blog Psyche’s Circuitry, which touches on memory, technology, and creativity highlights some of these issues:

    Research has recently shown that when we think we can look up information on the Internet, we make less effort and are less likely to remember it. This idea is referred to as “transactive memory” — relying on other people or things to store information for us.

    I constantly look up little tidbits of information. From sorbet recipes to Wendell Berry quotes, I find it exhilarating to access whatever I want, whenever I want. But I also take pride in storing and remembering things, wherever they may reside in my brain. I’m glad I didn’t grow up tethered to an all-knowing device, and I wonder how transactive memory is affecting students.


    Do many students feel the need to learn anything by heart? I’ve encountered plenty of students at the middle and high school level who can’t instantly recall and use basic math. I’ve encountered plenty of students who couldn’t point out Iraq or Afghanistan on a map, despite our nation’s intense involvement with these countries over the past 10 years. Rote memorization of ideas and facts, of course, is often scorned upon in schools nowadays, being seen as an outdated model of learning. Nonetheless, I think it is an advantage to be able to instantly recall information, draw connections between things you know by heart, synthesizing what you know without relying on technology.



    Psyche’s Circuitry’s post continues, “On the other hand, shouldn’t the vast amounts of information we have at our fingertips aid us in our creative endeavors? Haven’t our world and the vision we have of what is possible expanded? Couldn’t this make us more creative?”

    It should, but in my experience, the answer is a resounding “no” for many students. We don’t spend enough time teaching students how to utilize and take advantage of information technology. I should model in my classroom how, for example, I read various websites and blogs to help formulate new ideas. Or how Rebecca gathers ideas for DIY projects on Pinterest, and how I then take that information and research what I might need to build a new piece of furniture. Traditional schools and pedagogy is so far behind what is possible and, as a result, we’ve got a generation of students mostly unequipped to take advantage of creative possibilities.

    My gut instinct is that it’s not good development for people and society to rely too much on transactive memory.

    How many phone numbers do you still know?

    Photo of child holding mobile device by Paul Mayne on Flickr, and used with Creative Commons license.

    Paul Barnwell teaches English and digital media at Fern Creek Traditional High School in Louisville, Ky. In his spare time, he enjoys bow hunting, urban gardening, and rooting for the New England Patriots. He is currently a student at Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English. You can read more of his thoughts on education, technology, and culture on his blog, where this post originally appeared.

    Tagged: creativity digital use internet use memory psychology students teaching technology in the classroo

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