Electronic versus organic memory

Among the common school debates that I remember from when I was in high school decades ago was whether students should be able to use calculators in classes and on tests. That was about the time when powerful calculators were becoming more widely available, so it was no longer just a question of using calculators for multiplication and division. The issue as it was discussed then was—it is really “doing” math if you’re using a calculator? The larger version of that question, which educators increasingly face in the digital age, is what should students know and be able to do without assistance from online content and search engines? In an age when students can access just about any fact within seconds, given a device and an Internet connection, what is the value of knowing facts?

This is not a simple question, but a recent Slate article provides a valuable framework for thinking about the issue. In Your Two Kinds of Memory author Annie Murphy Paul draws a distinction between organic memory (memorized facts) and electronic memory (e.g., Google). Her ideas in turn come from “The Cognitive Integration of E-Memory” in the Review of Philosophy and Psychology (payment required). E-Memory, according to the researchers writing in the journal article, consists of “digital systems and services we use to record, store and access digital memory traces to augment, re-use or replace organismic systems of memory.”

The short version of the framework as described by Paul: “E-memory is suited for targeted searches, while O-memory is best for building a broad, deep base of knowledge.”

An examination of the ways that doctors and residents use knowledge suggests this:

“Medical residents are, or should be, in the process of becoming experts, and that process involves building a rich and interconnected database of knowledge in one’s own mind. Research in cognitive science and psychology demonstrates that the ability to make quick and accurate judgments depends on the possession of extensive factual knowledge stored in memory—in internal, organic memory, that is, and not in a device.”

That seems about right to me, and I expect most educators would agree. A pupil studying the history of war and its effects on the United States can do a quick search to find out the exact dates of World Wars I and II. But if he doesn’t know about the Spanish-American war and how it fits into the arc of history between the Civil War and the 20th century wars, he won’t be able to do much with the facts that an Internet search can provide.

I suspect that some teachers will deem that this is an obvious point. But outside the study of teaching and learning in academic circles, or within school halls, I don’t believe this distinction is explored and discussed enough. The E-memory and O-memory framework gives us a way to think about it.

Another way to think about it, as my Evergreen colleague and former teacher Stacy Hawthorne stated the issue in a recent tweet to teachers: “If students can Google the answer to your questions, what value are you really adding to their lives?”