In Does new technology reduce the need to memorise facts? Mark Frank rightly argues:
We remember things better if we elaborate on them – and there is much more scope for elaboration if you already know a lot.I don't think anyone disagrees with that. You need to attach information to other information in order to be able to recall. And you need some way to recall or bring in anything that you want to process. Creating attachment is incredibly important.
The point is that knowing facts is one of the best tools for accessing and using other facts.
Mark in many ways get rights to the crux of the issue with his suggestion that the key question is what are the necessary facts that students (or anyone) needs to learn. And this is an age-old and likely never solved debate. As part of his argument he tells us:
There is long-standing debate as to what facts are necessary (e.g. how much history should children know?) but that has little to do with new technology and is largely a matter of values.Now this is where I believe it gets very interesting. I believe that technology does have impact on what will be considered "necessary facts."
As a trivial example, consider the impact that cell phones have had on memorizing phone numbers. One study has shown that people over 50 have significantly better recall of important dates, phone numbers, etc. than people under 30. Why remember something that is immediately accessible in a usable form (ready to be dialed) when needed?
From my comments, in the post:
My belief is that there's a finite amount of learning time that students have. You have to make choices about what to spend your time on. And truly with access to very rich, easily accessible information sources, some time is wasted on needless facts. My earlier post on Life is an Open Book Test test talks to this. We test all the time closed book, but that's not reality. And especially now. So there's some balance that's needed. But my belief right now is that we are tending to stick with what we all accept as the right stuff to test just because that's how all of us learned and we think it represents important base knowledge.Going back to the question of knowing the population of England in 1800, I actually think it would be far more valuable to know the paradigm that population (which can be easily accessed by doing X) compared to something like the population of London (urbanization) and/or the number of people who died in a war or by disease (net impact, is this important) are interesting questions to know to ask. Unfortunately, while that may have been the point the professor was making in my class - it certainly was not the emphasis. By the way, I couldn't tell you the population of the U.S. (my home country which I theoretically have studied in far more detail) in 1800, nor do I have any sense if urbanization was more or less in the US, etc.
The question at hand - doesn't having quick (almost immediate) access to the definition and details of concepts like urbanization, populations, state capitals, change the set of facts we define as necessary?