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Saturday, August 02, 2008

Memorizing Facts

Brain 2.0 has sparked some very interesting discussion and quite a bit of disagreement. My basic claim is that technology changes what is considered

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.

The point is that knowing facts is one of the best tools for accessing and using other facts.

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.

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?


Anonymous said...

A fact is a fact is a fact.

Just having access instantantly (memorised) or near instant (look it up) doesn't mean much in this open book test of life.

Is it not the facts we have that really matter, but how we use them?

V Yonkers said...

"A fact is a fact is a fact."

If that is true, how come when you ask a European, a Costa Rican, and an American how many continents there are, you get a different answer?

Facts are constructed through shared understanding. However, when you have different understanding of what information, terms, and knowledge constitute, you have different "facts".

Here's one, Tony, you did not bring up. What were the names of the African countries when you went to school? European countries? How many of you can name those countries today? I can because I have needed to know them for my job. However, over the last few years my husband has had to ask me where Bellarus, Slovakia (which he still uses interchangeably with Slovenia--despite the fact that my brother's wife is from Slovakia) and Ukraine are.

Tony Karrer said...

Michael - great point - how we use them is what matters.

Virginia - heaven help me if I get quizzed on the names, locations, capitals, language, culture, etc. of African countries. Like most Americans, we hardly African except as it relates to slave trading. But even there, it was as if African was a big, single country. I'm afraid, I've not move much beyond that in all the years since.

So, is this knowledge that I should have? Or it's good to have? Or maybe I can just look it up when needed?

Although, not sure how my ignorance relates to the question.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Tony!

You are probably quite sick of my 20th century point of view about this topic by now. It is one that I am interested in simply because current trends/attitudes among learners are issues a teacher should keep abreast of - and this discussion is about such related trends/attitudes.

Mathematics & Science are two disciplines I teach in. I constantly attempt to look for patterns, similarities and translatables that can be applied equally well to one topic as to another. The extent of how this can be done in these disciplines is legion! It is part of what makes education so much a 'complexity system'. Nothing new here, I'm afraid.

It is a way that I found permitted me to easily reduce the (huge) quantity of (necessary) learning that I'd to acquire to do my job, and that my students have to acquire to gain the quals they pursue. It became a mind set if you like. You might even say that it was how my brain became 'wired'.

There are some fundamental items of learning within (many) disciplines that can help learners with the amount they have to learn vs the time for it to be done (nothing new here!)

I used to play Trivial Pursuits and was hopeless at it. My friends declared that I should be very good at it, but felt that the reason I was hopeless centred on that I just didn't know enough trivia - which is true. I stopped playing the game when I found that some within the circle of Pursuit players were actually swatting up on the answers to the questions by using the cards as swat books - yes, I know! The fact is that for them, it worked, while I was more interested in learning things that could be applied in a more general fashion to life, home and work.

Here are 3 science related topics that can be translated to other disciplines (hugely!):

Le Chatelier's Principle (Chemistry)

Newton's 2nd Law of motion (F=ma)

Boyle's Law for gases pv/t = PV/T

The list of examples is endless.

There is no slick panacea. The skill has to be acquired through practice. Mental gymnastics was the term my tutors used. The brain is like a muscle. You can exercise muscles (in the gym) that become useful to use - on the golf course, in a team run, in bed (!), in the workshop, at the bowling alley.

The brain appears to be similar in that it gets better and more effective at doing things with practice (nothing new here!) Studies have shown that more energy is spent by the lesser able brain while attempting to solve a problem than by an able brain solving the same problem. Brain efficiency can actually be improved with practice.

So what's the big deal on memorising facts. I say there shouldn't be any issue there at all unless there is a fundamental need for the fact to be learnt. Who decides that? Certainly not the needy learner unless they are already skilled in the area I'm waxing about here.

So the tutor/teacher/coach must make judicious (pedagogical) choices as to what should be learnt and how and when it is learnt (Bransford covers this).

The life-long learner acquires much of this skill. It should be part of the learner's tool-box that brings efficiency and effectiveness to learning.

Y'know, some of the most trivial brain activities have been found to be important in providing the necessary mental gymnastics I speak of here. An example is doing crossword puzzles. It is possible to become quite proficient at doing crossword puzzles. It's not the facts, it's the mind set, the wiring, if you like, that's important.

Recent research suggests that doing crossword puzzles actually prevents the onset and further deterioration brought about through Alzheimer's disease.

Now there's a forgettable fact for you to remember :-)

Ka kite
from Middle-earth

V Yonkers said...

Ken, is it possible that you can't do trivial pursuit because you did "memorize" the facts and didn't learn them? I am horrible at memorizing (I still remember the flash cards and games my mother used when I had to learn my times--multiplication--tables and I still get the 8's wrong), but great at trivial pursuit. Why? Because those facts were learned in context and make sense to me.

Another example: I learned Spanish by speaking it and studied French in school before "learning it" by speaking it in Switzerland. I rarely make "gender" mistakes between the article and noun in Spanish (even with exceptions) and use the Spanish to determine gender in French (which are usually the same) despite the hours of memorization for French class.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Tēnā koe Virginia!

I would never use the method the other 'players' used to learn the facts for Trivial Pursuits. I just simply didn't know the facts for they were not (ever) relevant to what I had been doing in my life. What's more, I find it difficult to learn facts from fact sheets. I find it easier to learn in context.

BUT, I gained the highest research degree attainable at a university. I didn't get my degrees by humming along and learning from fact sheets, but I must have learnt something that was assessable.

People are so different in their learning skills. That's interesting that you are so good at Trivial Pursuits.

How are you at crossword puzzles, Virginia?

Ka kite

Tony Karrer said...

Crossword puzzles, trivial pursuit, scrabble, I would claim that all three emphasize recall in a way that does not necessarily translate into value. I'm not good at any of these. I have a passable vocabulary, a decent knowledge in some subjects, and don't know a lot of two and three letter words that would never come up in real life. Being good at crossword puzzles doesn't necessarily translate into being able to use the word in context. Yet, we laud this kind of memorization and recall - and teach students how to do this.

It's interesting what you are saying about the requirements for a thesis - definitely you need to have facts to back you up, but the questioning is first and foremost something else. And don't get me started on learning politics, manipulation techniques, dealing with committee members. Incredibly valuable learning, but more like hazing associated with pledging a fraternity than getting an advanced degree.

Anonymous said...

Good morning, Tony!

The importance of memorization has shifted over time (in the workplace) with more and more "remembering" focusing on where the fact resides than the ability to recall it. It terms of eLearning, this also represents a shift in thinking for our designers and developers to build "facts" shaped by the momentum of relevance in the context of our work.

I'm a proponent of knowing where to get what I need when I need it in just the right amount and in a format that my work circumstances will allow in terms of access and consumption.

Space - where is learner when learning is required?

Media - what is the most compelling media mix to deliver effective and relevant content?

Technology - what is the mix of hosting systems, content repositories, access technology in the hands of the learner, and connectivity?

These three attributes of a continuous learning model are essential and must be part of the design, development and delivery approach adopted by the organization.

Our knowledge workers need to have access to critical learning objects at the point of attack - in their work context. Call it just-in-time learning or fingertip knowledge or what ever buzzword turns your crank.

Methinks if I need to memorize something, it should how to leverage my capability to access it. A critical aspect of learning is leveraging the available technology to get to what I need when it's time to learn. When your hair is on fire, a virtual classroom session on fire prevention is not a good fit.

I know my performance consulting background is showing when I say this, but what builds sustainability across organizations is less dependent upon what we know (or can remember) and more on what we can apply (do) effectively. Outcomes and results are a function of performance, and there's no denying that knowledge and skills are foundational to that effort.

To Mark's point, the ability to apply knowledge whether it's learned through rote memorization of acquired just-in-time is what moves the performance needle.

To the traditional training purists, I speak blasphemy, but fear not, there will always be a need for linear transactional classroom or online training (a subset of learning), and memorization will always play a role in recitation of facts to pass tests and certifications.

Transference of knowledge to actual performance back in the workplace is the true test of training effectiveness, and the need for reference knowledge becomes paramount to performance success.

And that would be another $.02 from this camper.

Have a great day in learning!

Gary Wise
(317) 437-2555

V Yonkers said...

Tony and Ken bring up an interesting point: breadth of knowledge (BTW I am a terrible speller, but a great strategist--part of trivial pursuit is in deciding partners and/or sequence of questions and scrabble is where you place your tiles. I am very good at bluffing at scrabble and put down misspelled words with great confidence so I am rarely challenged!).

My father was an engineer who was a phenomenal writer/communicator and interested in a wide variety of subjects. One thing I do that my parents pushed my siblings and I to do was try things we weren't interested, along with those we were interested in. Perhaps because I am one of 5 very different siblings, I was exposed to a lot of different things (which comes in handy in trivial pursuit).

Gary: your post reminds me of the term one of my students used: just in time learning. So in addition to Space, technology, and media (which might be a book), I would include time. I would also include reference group (which network do you have available at the time--this would relate to Tony's comment about the politics of the situation).

Tony Karrer said...

Gary - I agree with how you position it. What makes that interesting is that for you - absolutely technology and particularly access to information changes what you teach.

I would also suggest that user-generated content, collaborative tools, and access to people changes aspects of what you teach.

Anonymous said...

Good morning, Tony & V Yonkers,

You are both on the money. I use the Space, Media, Technology model to cover both formal and informal learning opportunities, where the informal includes the collaborative aspects afforded by many of the Learning 2.0 venues. In a sense, Learning 2.0 embodies the entire model beacuse it is learner-centric in orientation.

What I did not elaborate on in my previous post is the full extent of "space". It is not only "where" the lerner is physically located in the context of their work, it includes "who" are the learning stakeholder(s), and that group is far greater than the individual learner.

We must add in the facilitators, designers and developers...and don't forget the SMEs who may generate their own content...who wrestle with "where they are when it's time to do make their contributions to the creation of or the delivery of the content.

Add in the peers and colleagues who are often accessed via IM (or if old-school is your schtick, the water cooler) with questions like, "Have you ever done this?"

We must also add in the supervisors and managers who need content to consistently and effectively reinforce the learning gleaned from the "deployment" stage of the learning continuum...not to mention content to assist the mentors who may be involved.

This list can also include 3rd party vendors and suppliers who contribute with OTS content. And in some cases the orgainzation's customers/clients are also a stakeholder.

Within each of those stakeholder groups, considerations must be made regarding the best mix of "media" which in turn must consider the available (or recommended) mix of technology residing on BOTH ends of the creation-to-consumption life cycle of learning content.

V Yonkers, you're right. This is a book. I'm thrashing with a white paper that is getting waaay too big now that puts this into a more cohesive diatribe than the bits and snatches I'm tossing about on the blog.

It's funny, in thirty years I've endured training's evolution from exclusive, linear stand-up where the trainer was more of a presenter than a facilitator and their job was to spew effectively and hope it stuck. Success was measured by stellar level 1 evals and great level 2 results on the tests. Level and beyond was a myth.

I've developed storyboards until my fingers had blisters, and finally went over to the dark-side and drank the technology Kool-Aid.

Being in the role to applying technology in a learning organization, I get to scare a lot of people. While that can be entertaining at times, there are those non-tech attributes of a continuous learning environment that must be addressed. Oddly enough, the technology part of the model must be defined by "space" - who's the learning stakeholder, where are they when they need to consume the asset, and what are they doing in the context of their work. The learning moments (opportunities) shaped by "space" shine the light on the most impactful media mix. And then...and not before, the technology is considered. That sounds like a linear thought process, in some respects, but much happens concurrently. My point is technology is not driving the is the bus.

Who's on it, where are they going and what do they want to see on their trip defines how the bus is used to accomplish the journey.

...and there's another $.02

Have another great day in learning!

Gary Wise
(317) 437-2555

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Virginia!

I like your strategy for scrabble. That is the stroke of a true master to be able to pull that one off! You would probably be quite good at poker too?

G K Chesterton is purported to have said, "If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly." I never could see much sense in that one. But now I'm begining to :-)

Ka kite

Anonymous said...

its very hard to memorized for even i use different strategy../huh

maybe this post can help to me.

Sean McLaughlin said...

I'm 52 years old and I have returned to school to learn to become a Physician Assistant, after 20+ years in the electronics and computer technology fields. I am amazed at how hard it is. I have heard that as one gets older, the brain atrophies. But exercising the brain is similar to exercising muscles. Still, if you don't use either of those, you lose the ability to recover the previous strength. I'm wondering if there is any new research on helping older guys like myself to improve memorization? I'm really having a hard time in school, so it really matters to me. Thanks!