Brain 2.0, Memorization and More...

One of my favorite bloggers in the eLearning universe is Tony Karrer. Today, he recapped some venting he did recently on the topic of whether we should be “aiming at creativity, synthesis, composition, etc. more than memorization” and training “students who are knowledge-able rather than knowledgeable.” You can read the entire post here.

Tony’s post was also a semi reaction to Brent Schlenker’s argument that “we never really change HOW people learn…What we do is change how we [teach] based on what we know about how the [brain works].”

The question of whether we change how people learn is an interesting one, to say the least. We know that neuroscience has had much to say in recent years about the continued plasticity of the brain (for more info, see The Brain at Work, Can You Become a Creature of New Habits and Major Step Forward in Understanding How Memory Works). That makes me think that this argument is more semantic and philosophical than actual. While it may be true that we don’t change the manner in which the brain handles input at the genetic level, the brain itself is constantly being “updated” by our experiences, adapting itself to the input it receives. As new neural pathways are laid, the information coming in is then processed “differently.”

How does this relate to the debate of memorization vs concepts? I am inclined to believe that whether we are better at one or the other has to do with the brain’s constant adaptation. Obviously, we have the ability to do both. But as is accepted in personality studies, we know that over time our brains tend to wire themselves in such a way that favors one method of information processing over another based on individual experiences. For example, I am horrible at memorization of facts, even with topics about which I am passionate. I am much better at remembering concepts and ideas and perform poorly in instances where I am required to recite things “from memory.” In other words, I stink at ALL trivia games. My wife and oldest son, on the other hand, are both walking trivia guides on any number of subjects. So whenever they beat the pants off me in memorization games, I defend my loss by saying that they only won because I choose to use my brain to store important information instead of a bunch of trivial facts (to which they both roll their eyes and continue celebrating).

Honestly, though, memorization and recall of exact data is critical to our day-to-day functioning and I, along with Tony’s wife, believe it’s one of those critical skills that we must continue to develop in our students. I don’t think I need to tick off the endless examples where this would be true (medicine, law, science, etc). Sometimes, conceptually close just won’t cut it…we need to be exact. I also understand the argument that we live in an information age in which those exact details are only a click away, so why waste brain space memorizing them (an argument I’ve also used MANY times over the years, especially after losing a game of Trivial Pursuit or doing poorly on some “dumb test”). But that really doesn’t hold water. For one, the storage capacity of the human brain is virtually limitless. And second, there are times when I am NOT sitting next to a high speed connection to the world wide brain, but I need exact information anyway.

I think the balance is in teaching students to improve memorization of critical data that can quickly link to and from conceptual data.
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About Eric Wilbanks

Brand strategist. Wordsmith. Change architect. Training specialist. DiSC Certified. Family guy (hot wife and 4 cool kids). Love my Bible, guitars, baseball, and MMA.


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