If you're a teacher or educator, you might have heard about a study from Harvard and Columbia that “proved” that using Google is eroding our memories.
Since the study came out, educators and technophobes alike have been pontificating on what this means for the future of education and the brain. The Twitter-sphere abounds with doomsday tweets about the “googlification” of our brains. Even Mashable weighed in on the subject, lamenting that we may “go into withdrawal when we can’t find something online.”
You can relax. Google isn't ending our ability to remember. To understand why, let's take a closer look at the study, what they did, what they actually found, and what it means for modern education.
Limitations of the Harvard Google study
The problem with the study—and what all the resulting debate seems to be ignoring—is that it greatly restricted the kinds of things the participants had to remember. The study tracked participants’ ability to remember trivia—random facts that may come up in casual conversation—when the participant knew that she or he would be able to access this information again at any time.
With those experimental constraints applied, of course participants are likely to forget most of what they have uncovered in the search results! The subject matter was not a topic that they were already deliberately trying to learn on their own (e.g. a language, medical school concepts, etc.), they didn't care about the subject, and they knew they could find it again. (Same reason my wife still doesn't know my phone number :0 .)
Thus, this study does not prove anything about our ability to remember in general because most of the things we remember are things we care about. If you teach Physical Education, you might not remember that the capital of Brazil is Brasilia if I mentioned it casually to you and you knew you could look it up later. But you would probably remember what the hand signals in Basketball meant.
Similarly, if you taught Geography, you would probably remember the capital of Brazil, but might not remember the hand signals. Our memory depends on context and relevance to our lives.
The role of personalized learning in education
What does this mean for education? Well, it might say something about personalized learning—making sure that our teaching is designed in such a way that it adapts to the individual needs of our students. Personalized learning and learning deliberately have always been important ingredients to our ability to remember things, with or without the internet. No study has yet shown any evidence that technology is worsening our ability to learn things we actually care about.
Declarative knowledge will remain essential
What we do know is that certain fields are requiring a greater and greater amount of knowledge that we must memorize. For example, would you like to have a doctor who can’t answer your questions because they have to google every body part, symptom, or physiological process because they forgot it from medical school? A lawyer who has no concept of legal precedent because they never had to memorize supreme court cases? A computer programmer who has to stop and look up every command because they never took the time to memorize key commands up front?
There is currently no sign of robots taking over such advanced jobs (although they will certainly augment those jobs), and there will always be a need for our brains to store a large amount of declarative knowledge in order to apply that knowledge to solving complex problems. Enter online flashcards.
Technology may actually help us learn better
The good news is that it can easily be argued that technology has increased our ability to remember new pieces of declarative knowledge, by freeing up time that was previously spent remembering trivial things like facts, dates, and phone numbers.
And web and mobile flashcards platforms like Brainscape, the best flashcards app, even directly help improve our memory of important topics by applying real cognitive science principles to the study process—thus helping us learn faster and remember things for longer than ever before.
The reality is that as time goes on, technology will continue to help us filter our information streams and determine precisely what knowledge we want to try to commit to memory. While the percentage of things that we remember may be decreasing, the total volume of our information streams is still rising so fast that the net amount of new things we remember is likely to be increasing. I look forward to the Harvard study about that.
The take-away for teachers: prepare your students for learning efficiently
What does that mean for you and your teaching? It means that it will continue to be important to give students the tools that they need to efficiently learn—and remember—lots of information. And it means that personalized learning will continue to be key.
Memorization isn't dead; Google doesn't reduce our ability to remember things that matter to us; and there are technological solutions—like Brainscape—that can actually help us remember things more efficiently. Those are the take-aways from all that conversation on the Harvard Google study.