Don’t Offload Your Memory Quite Yet: Cognitive Science, Memory, and Education

Google may or may not being making us stupid, but it does appear to render human memory obsolete. By now most of us have probably heard someone suggest that with Google functioning as our reliable and ubiuqitous prosthetic memory, it is no longer necessary to waste time or mental effort memorizing facts. This is usually taken to be a positive development since our brains are now assumed to be free from the menial work of remembering to do the more serious work of creative and critical thinking.

This sounds plausible enough and gains a certain credence from our own experience. Some time ago we began noticing that we no longer know anyone’s phone number. We’re doing well if we can remember our own. Ever since cell phones started storing numbers, we stopped remembering them. And for the most part we’re no worse for it, except, of course, for those instances when we need someone’s number but we can’t access our phones for whatever reason. But those situations tend to be few and far between and on the whole we have little reason to begin memorizing all the numbers in our directories.

We should, however, think twice about extending that line of reasoning much beyond phone numbers. In his 2009 book, Why Don’t Students Like School, Daniel Willingham, a cognitive scientist at the University of Virginia challenges this popular line of reasoning and argues instead for the importance of storing factual knowledge in our long term memory.

Willingham notes that disparaging the need to memorize facts has a long and distinguished history in American education that predates the emergence of the Internet and of Google as a verb form. He cites, for example, J. D. Everett who in 1873 warned that,

There is a great danger in the present day lest science-teaching should degenerate into the accumulation of disconnected facts and unexplained formulae, which burden the memory without cultivating the understanding.

The modern day version of this concern leads to the notion that “instead of learning facts, it’s better to practice critical thinking, to have students work at evaluating all the information available on the Internet rather than trying to commit some small part of it to memory.” Contrary to this fashionable assumption, Willingham argues that that “very processes that teachers care about most — critical thinking processes such as reasoning and problem solving — are intimately intertwined with factual knowledge that is stored in long-term memory (not just found in the environment).”

The problem is that we tend to conceive of thinking analogously to how we imagine a computer works and we abstract processes from data. We treat “critical thinking” as a process that can be taught independently of any specific data or information. On the contrary, according to Willingham, the findings of cognitive science suggest that “[c]ritical thinking processes are tied to background knowledge” and “we must ensure that students acquire background knowledge parallel with practicing critical thinking skills.”

Willingham offers three main points in support of his claim listed here with a few explanatory excerpts:

1. Background knowledge stored in long term memory is essential to reading comprehension

a. it provides vocabulary

b. it allows you to bridge logical gaps that writers leave

c. it allows chunking, which increases room in working memory and thereby makes it easier to tie ideas together

d. it guides the interpretation of ambiguous sentences

2. Background knowledge is necessary for cognitive skills

a. “Memory is the cognitive process of first resort. When faced with a problem, you will first search for a solution in memory …”

b. Chunking facilitated by available knowledge in long term memory enhances reasoning as well as reading comprehension.

c. “Much of what experts tell us they do in the course of thinking about their field requires background knowledge, even if it’s not described that way.”

3. Factual knowledge improves your memory

a. “when you have background knowledge your mind connects the material you’re reading with what you already know about the topic, even if you’re not aware that it’s happening”

b. “having factual knowledge in long-term memory makes it easier to acquire still more factual knowledge”

Among the implications for the classroom that Willingham explores, the following are worth mentioning:

1. “Shallow knowledge is better than no knowledge”: You can’t have deep knowledge about everything, but shallow knowledge of some areas, while not ideal, is better than nothing. It’s at least something to build on and work with.

2. “Do whatever you can to get kids to read”: In Willingham’s view, nothing helps build a wide knowledge base  better than reading and lots of it.

3. “Knowledge must be meaningful”: Memorizing random lists of disconnected facts is not only harder, but ultimately less helpful.

That last point acknowledges that mere rote memorization and incessant drilling can be fruitless and counterproductive. Of course, that much should be obvious. What is no longer obvious, and what Willingham compellingly demonstrates, is that storing up factual knowledge in long term memory is not the enemy of thought, but rather its necessary precondition.

It would appear that the rhetoric of offloaded memory ignores the findings of cognitive science and leads to ineffective educational practice.

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Related posts: Offloaded Memory and Its Discontents and The Fog of Life.