I was talking to a computer system administrator in his 60s about all the knowledge he had in is head, I told him it must be great to build on all that knowledge. He talked about how one of his first ‘computer’ jobs required writing machine code (in octal) and directly keying in the values. He said that he would literally remember all the different machine codes so that he could quickly enter in the necessary instructions. He said he would dream in code at times.
I told him, he’d probably be really good at assembly today! He shrugged saying maybe, but that taking all the time to memorize all of those different codes was very tedious and not fun. He said that a large amount of the knowledge he had in computers was memorization of commands, codes and processes that are long forgotten or significantly outdated.
The thing is, he is still a very good system administrator despite all of the ‘useless’ knowledge. Does he just have a knack for computers? Or did he learn how to think…
GPS and Google
Now lets look at a couple more obvious examples; GPS is one of the most helpful things for anyone traveling long distances. It has permeated just about every new car, and is in every modern phone. After using GPS for years, have you ever tried not using GPS, or not having it available? How awkward was it, how difficult? What about the last time you misspelled a word? Do you take the time to remember how it was spelled, or do you just type in google and let it figure it out for you? Name any problem you’ve ever encountered, how often could just googling it help? Feeding you hundreds of results, with varying levels of information from good to bad. Have you seen the funny videos of 5 year olds asking “alexa” to answer their math problems? This isn’t a new concept, everyone is aware that technology is doing something to our minds, but is it a problem? What do we do?
Schools and Learning
The definition of learning is essentially the acquisition of knowledge. What about the definition of ‘education’? That is the ‘process of providing systematic instruction’. That sounds great, and is definitely useful in general. Yet there is rarely true consensus on what should be learned. For example, some say spelling is essential and an important part of elementary learning, others not so much. Despite the disagreement, we know for a fact that these ‘systematic instructions’ for just about everything can be found on google. Learning is actually very simple, it’s memorization at its core. It’s memorization of information, correlations and processes.
Yet like the 60 year old system administrator, a lot of learned information becomes outdated. And even if it’s not simply outdated, building upon learned information is often difficult. If a 5 year old can solve math problems by using alexa, how does that change things? Are they actually able to do more because of it? Some people before GPS were horrible at using maps, those people today are likely able to travel more, with less stress.
These are very minuscule examples, but the implications are immense. If we can google any and everything, why should we memorize so much that can be looked up? What do we actually need to learn?
The point of learning and memorization is so that we can perform actions but most importantly to help us think: to reason and solve problems. It seems that schools, the definition of education and the entire paradigm is flawed as it underscores “learning” or “systematic instruction” instead of “thinking”.
If the 5 year old is answering math questions with alexa, why not have her solve a bigger problem instead? Allow the use of alexa, and see what the most complex problem she can solve is. Most likely the child would be solving problems that are in a higher level of learning, even though some of the memorized basics were skipped.
In some ways, not making use of the massive body of knowledge available to us, is akin to tying one hand behind our backs while trying to swim. It’s like requiring a web programmer to learn machine code. It’s like requiring an accountant to not use a calculator. We aren’t teaching them to think when we do that, we are teaching them to memorize.
The Future of Education
I know there are going to be naysayers, my mom possibly one of them (she’s an English professor). Yet, we have to admit that while we may believe that the accountant should or shouldn’t be required to know how to multiply by hand, we know for a fact there are pros and cons to both sides.
The future of basic education (not necessarily specializations) should allow all forms of google and references. It should focus on critical thinking, problem solving, social interaction and life skills while using those references. There can and will be still learning/memorization requirements, however the sole purpose should be to facilitate thinking. The future of education should involve games, and underscore that while thinking can be hard work it can always be fun.
Lets please emphasize thinking in schools and “never memorize something you can look up” – Albert Einstein