Memory cannot be outsourced

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post arguing that the ‘traditional’ understanding of a hierarchical, teacher-centric classroom has not existed in English schools since at least the 1960s. In the comments thread, I am trying to list examples of people claiming that this model of teaching still does exist (normally in the context of them saying that it should be abolished). Andrew Old has been particularly diligent in finding examples. Thank you Andrew.

In this post, I want to do something similar. Here, I want to list examples of people claiming that we don’t need to learn facts because we have the internet. I mean things like this:

What matters today is how to process and manipulate knowledge, rather than absorbing and memorising facts from within a narrow specialism…Facts learned at school become irrelevant to most of life’s challenges since the internet makes knowledge universal and immediately accessible.

And this:

Why teach them about the Battle of Hastings when they have got Google?

And this:

We are no longer in an age where a substantial ‘fact bank’ in our heads is required.

This is another example of a completely false idea which nevertheless seems to be extremely pervasive. What is so frustrating about this one is that the hard evidence about why we need to memorise facts is solid and well-documented, but not nearly so well-known. Here is what I think is the best article about this available on the internet – E.D. Hirsch’s You Can Always Look It Up…Or Can You? I have also written about it here, here and here.

0 responses to “Memory cannot be outsourced”

  1. teachingbattleground says:

    “Schools today must provide opportunities for young people to create knowledge out of the swirling clouds of information that surround them 24/7. You went to school because that’s where the knowledge was stored. That was yesterday. Think how different today’s world is. Today’s young people need guidance in sifting through the flood of information and turning it into knowledge. They need to be able to formulate good questions — because computers have all the answers.”

  2. teachingbattleground says:

    “Education will be more about how to process and use information and less about imparting it. This is a consequence of both the proliferation of knowledge — and how much of it any student can truly absorb — and changes in technology. Before the printing press, scholars might have had to memorize “The Canterbury Tales” to have continuing access to them. This seems a bit ludicrous to us today. But in a world where the entire Library of Congress will soon be accessible on a mobile device with search procedures that are vastly better than any card catalog, factual mastery will become less and less important.”

  3. File this under “Stupid Conversations We Need to Stop Having in Education.” When people say, “Well, students don’t need content; they need to learn to think,” I ask them, “Well, what would you like them to think *about*?”

  4. […] as traditionalist as people think. Why the ’21st century skills’ movement is flawed. Why you can’t rely on pupils being able to look things up. Why project-based education fails. Why and how we should teach grammar. Why Ofsted are awful. Why […]


    “To return to Plutarch for a moment; one of the must unphilosophical of modern educational assumptions is that education is about filling the mind with content. In an age where computers, once suitably programmed, can perform tasks far more efficiently than human beings, and where the internet provides instant information on anything and everything, there really is no point in regarding the intellectual shovel as a relevant tool. It is increasingly obvious that, looking to the future, all education needs to be centred on the cultivation of smart thinking. Of course we all need basic skills in order to use the technology available to us, and perhaps to enhance and develop that technology, but the real challenge is to give students a critical appreciation of what technology can do and how it can contribute to human wellbeing. Education is about values, direction and an imaginative grasp of possibilities.”

  6. howardat58 says:

    I love the stupid comment you quoted: “Why teach them about the Battle of Hastings when they have got Google? ”
    If they never heard about it they won’t know what to put in the search box.!
    And that’s apart from the fact that a lot of the stuff on the net is pure garbage.

  7. monkrob says:

    I think we need to make a distinction between recognition and recall.
    On many occasions in school and in life it is our ability to recognise knowledge rather than recall it that matters.

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