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Google Memory

Long ago, Socrates warned of the danger of writing.  In recording thought in written words, he believed, people save themselves the trouble of keeping thought alive in the mind.  People wouldn’t have to remember things, or reason their way ”through” to ideas and values  on their own.  Instead of “living” truth we would have dead letters.

People quote the episode all the time when someone raises questions about learning technologies.  “Well, we’ve had handwringing over new tools and techniques ever since Plato,” they say, as if the ancient example proves something.

A new study reported in Science magazine (subscription needed, but the New York Times summary appears here) raises the issue anew.  This time, though, the results bear Socrates out.  In the study, researchers tested people’s memory to determine if their memory improves or not when they think they won’t be able to recall the material using computers later on.

A summary from Science:

A researcher “presented 40 different trivia statements to the students and had them type the factoids on the computer.  She told half of the group in advance that the computer would save what they had written so they could see it later; she told the other half that the computer would erase it.  Then all of the students were challenged to write down the statements from memory.  Those who had been told that the computer would erase their notes had by far the best memory of the statements, as if their brains had made an emergency backup.  Those who were expecting to retrieve the information later performed more poorly.”

In a way, the outcome is common sense.  If people know they can find something, they don’t take as much trouble to retain it.  All they need to know is how and where to find it.  (This is a version of the ed-speak truism “learning how to learn.”)

One interesting added result was that students tended to remember the place where something was stored better than the details of the thing stored–an abstraction that should give teachers pause.

It should also trouble those who object to the instrumentalization of knowledge.  When it comes to the materials of learning, we should impress upon students the importance of carrying these materials around in their own heads.  Facts about the Civil War, scientific laws, poems by Emily Dickinson . . . these are not just items to retrieve when a situation calls for them.  They are rightly part of a youth’s character and sensibility.  The Gettysburg Address isn’t just a text on the syllabus to be invoked at test time.  The cadences and assertions should be internalized forever.

The danger of Google is that it’s so convenient that it turns the materials of history, science, literature, art, and politics into information, not learning.  In a Google-ized classroom, we lose the practice of education-as-formation.  And the more we let search engines function in student work, the less we can expect that students will remember our instruction once the semester ends.

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