Sunday, August 26, 2012

Guest Post - Are We Outsourcing Our Memories?

From time to time I give people a chance to guest post on Free Technology for Teachers. I put out a call for guest posts back in June and this is the last one from that series. If you're interested in guest posting in the future, I will be putting out a call for posts again in October. 

Hanging in my office is a slide that reads "If your students can Google the answer, then you are asking the wrong question.". This pithy aphorism expresses the ever-more-widely-held view that as teachers, we should not be spending our time drilling reams of facts into our students. In an age of Google and smartphones and iPads and wifi, our students can instantly and enjoyably find out all of the minutiae that we want them to learn.  Rather, we should spend most of our instructional time focused on imparting either skills or deeper analysis to our young charges.

By contrast, there is a debate in the Talmud over what type of individual should be appointed to lead a congregation.  Should the community search for someone who possesses vast stores of knowledge, or should they instead turn towards a leader who has remarkable analytical skills?  After some discussn, the conclusion reached is that the individual with the greater knowledge is preferable, as people need someone who has the ability to draw on what he has learned in order to answer their questions, not someone who will answer their every query with another question.

At first blush, these statements do not seem capable of existing within the same world, or at least within the same educational framework.  Should we be loading our students down with facts in hopes that we are giving the proper tools for leadership, or will their adult lives be best served by being able to think critically?  In some sense, there are several reasons why the fact-cramming approach seems to be somewhat passé.  Many of us perhaps recall school as being an endless procession of reading and memorizing, much of it in subject areas that did not interest us in the least.  The increasing popularity of flipped learning, blended learning, project based learning, and all of their cousins has put a stress on the teacher's role in stimulating critical thinking skills.  And, of course, there's ample research that cramming information is among the worst ways to learn something for long-term recall purposes.  Seemingly, the days of the Jeopardy champion as hero and role model are behind us.

On the other hand, it strikes me that there is something to be said for accumulating knowledge, and not via Google.  In order to analyze material, you need to have material to analyze, and the more that you are working with, the better your analysis can potentially be.  One of the true joys of being a lifelong learner is seeing how different strands of one’s education continuously overlap and come to bear on one another.  Additionally, before you can Google a fact, you need to know what you are searching for.  We look for new knowledge in context, trying to add one fact at a time to our existing knowledge base, hopefully in a way that helps us to keep our learning organized in our heads.  To my mind, that is a major role that teachers play - pointing to students towards new knowledge in a way that makes sense and in a way that will allow them to retain that knowledge and be able to access it for future use.
So, who is right?  Should we allow Google to serve as our outsourced memory bank while we spend our time engaged in creative and analytical intellectual pursuits? Or should we aim to acquire as much knowledge, as measured in raw facts, as possible, in the hopes of creating solid foundations for future learning, plus the occasional know-it-all who is a good teammate for Trivial Pursuit?

My sense is that the two statements that I began with actually balance one another, and hopefully provide us with a healthy and even-keeled approach to take as the educational pendulum continues to swing away from the fill-them-up-with-facts approach and towards the make-them-think approach.  There is no question that our students need to learn facts, and lots of them.  The question is how we are going to go about getting all of that information into their heads.  Are we going to lecture at them all day, and follow that up with simplistic homework or other assessments that merely ask them to fill in blanks?  If that is our approach, then we may as well just teach them to use Google well, as we are ultimately not even teaching them the information that we want them to know.  However, if we teach our students basic material, or even more advanced material, and then have them review it in a way that not only forces them to repeat and rehearse the information, but also requires them to give it serious thought, in a way that Google cannot help them, then not only will we create students who can think, but also students with vast and useful funds of knowledge.

About the author:
Rabbi Aaron Ross, Ed.D. is assistant principal at Yavneh Academy, a K-8 Jewish day school in Bergen County, NJ.  He is currently very involved in spreading the adoption of project-based learning approaches in Jewish schools, and is an avid techie.  You can follow his blogs at, and you can follow him on twitter at @rabbiross.