Have you forgotten how to remember?

Mon Sep 23 2013 Michael McQueen

Memory is often described as being like a muscle - the more you exercise it, the stronger it becomes. In an age where information is just a click away, are we losing the capacity for remembering information and data... and does it even matter? 

10 years ago, if I were to ask you how many phone numbers you knew off by heart, I bet there would have been at least a dozen. You spouse, parents, work, the local video store, your favorite takeaway restaurant... And yet today, how many numbers have you committed to memory beyond your own? If you're anything like me, I bet it isn't many.

The simple reality is that smartphones and speed dial have resulted in us not needing to memorize phone numbers as we once did. And I suspect this is merely symptomatic of a broader trend.

memoryRunning a workshop with a group of teachers recently the topic of conversation turned to this very theme. Those in attendance expressed concern that the next generation of students have little capacity or willingness to memorize. With every piece of information imaginable just a click or a swipe away, the reality is that young people rarely memorize information they may need in the future – after all, it can just be Googled again when required.

Naturally, this has significant ramifications for education more broadly. After all, for centuries now the implicit focus in training and assessment has been on memory retention. Teachers will still often gauge their effectiveness in the classroom by asking students 'What do you remember from last week's lesson?'

There is a growing awareness that this question is a profoundly inadequate measure of teaching outcomes. Surely a better question to ask would be 'What did you learn last week'and what have you done with that knowledge.'

In considering how the shift away from a memory-focused paradigm has implications for students, questions must be raised about the way we examine students in the first place. For instance, many of my education clients are grappling with the notion of making all examinations or assessments open book and web enabled devices permissible and even encouraged.

Naturally, some see this as yet another step in lowering academic standards. However, in an age where information abounds, is it perhaps time that we tested students on their ability to gather, comprehend, interpret and communicate information rather than testing memory?

Just a thought...