The Digital Age and Memory

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.

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

I remember memorizing directions to ride my bike to various swimming holes in Concord, NH, 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.

Now, it is 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.  Psyche’s Circuitry’s recent blog post 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 this idea of 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 those places 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  Rote memorization of ideas and facts, of course, is often scorned upon in schools nowadays, being seen as an outdated model of learning.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 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, then I 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.  

What do you think?   How many phone numbers do you still know?:)   How should schools adjust–if at all–teaching and learning in the information age?


  1. Alan,
    Very interesting commentary regarding Asian cultures. There is something cut and dry–right and wrong–regarding the memorization of certain skills, numbers, ideas. So I see how that structure could relate to obedience.
    All curriculums have pros and cons, of course.
    I believe there are few educators–myself included–who would shy away from a balanced approach in the classroom that taught students the value of disciplined memorization of certain ideas.

  2. I couldn’t agree more! Memorization is a lost art and our kids suffer for it. It has always been a sign of a well-educated person and it greatly assists the thinking process. I wish mine were better!

  3. This is a very provocative subject. My guess is that when we don’t require students to memorize, they don’t learn how to memorize, and thus lose an important potential skill. It may not be that memorized information is the most useful, but surely the capacity to memorize is. Surely someone has done research into how much we can learn to memorize, how much this needs to be learned early, and how much we can lose or regain this skill at older ages. I agree with your gut – transactive memory sounds dangerous.

    Wouldn’t it be possible to have a curriculum that required both memorization (to some degree) and higher-order thinking skills such as synthesis and analysis?

    Another use of memorization, prevalent in Asian cultures, is to teach obedience. I think it is no accident that Chinese and Japanese are languages that require huge amounts of rote memorization to master, that these societies have educational systems that enforce similar memorization in other subjects where it is less appropriate, and that these societies value social hierarchy and obedience much more than Western societies.

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