Thursday, July 28, 2011

Outsourcing Trivia

The alarmists are all atwitter about this idea of "outsourcing memory" to the Internet, as detailed in this report published in Science. We won't know anything anymore! We'll lose our ability to remember anything! We'll Google knowledge forever!

Well. Maybe we will. We have the ability to be profoundly stupid, after all. But call it a possible result, not a necessary one. It all depends on what you upload/outsource, and what you decide to teach, learn, and remember.

In the report, they discuss an experiment in which people were asked to type in 40 pieces of trivia. Some were told that the facts woule be saved; some were told they would be erased. Predictably, the ones who were told the former soon forgot the trivia. As would I.


In in oral society, you have to remember everything. Or, since you can't remember everything, you have to have people whose job it is to be the rememberers and reciters. In a literate society, you can find information in books...but you don't always have access to the books, so there are certain things you just have to know. The only thing that's changing now is that we have faster and easier access to information. But that doesn't mean we don't need to know anything.

The task for us, as educators, is to separate the wheat from the chaff. Yes, you can turn to Google for all kinds of information, but what are the things you just flat-out need to know, in order to be able to ask the right questions of Google? There are random facts and there are foundational facts. Random facts are perfect for Internet searches. Foundational facts create the context and the conceptual basis of fields of knowledge. Does a student need to memorize and recite back an entire textbook anymore? I see no reason for it. For the rest of his life, he'll have access to most of the allegedly-interesting facts contained within the book. But what are the facts that build the conceptual knowlege that a student will need, to understand biological systems, or how angles relate to each other, or how poetry uses imagery to touch emotions?

I need to understand what poetic language does, in order to lead a full and rich life. I do not need to remember the difference between a Petrarchan and a Shakespearean sonnet; I can look that up.

I need to understand what drives countries to colonize and conquer other countries, in order to make sense of the world around me and see new threats as they emerge. I do not need to remember exactly when Britain colonized the Indian sub-continent; I can look that up. But if I want to understand the sweep of history, I should know roughly when it happened, and how those events contributed to the larger time period.

I need to understand the concept of area, and what information I would need (and what process to undertake) in order to figure out how large a rug to buy. And while it would be nice to be able to do the multiplication in my head, perhaps I don't need to, anymore; there are calculators built into pretty much everything. BUT...I'd better know that multiplication is needed, and which numbers should be multiplied together.

People who don't want to have to grapple with the tough questions facing us love pretending that babies will always get thrown out, any time you say the bathwater needs changing. But it just isn't so. "Do nothing; change nothing" is not a viable response anymore. "Leave us alone and let us do what we've always done" won't work. The sky is not falling. :et's look the thing square in the face, see it for what it is, what it can be, and what it shouldn't be, and act accordingly.