Wee Scoops

Measure for Measure

Where do you store your information? Inside or outside your brain?

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What do you need to know? What facts and ideas are so essential that you should have them more accessible than a google away? What do you need to store in your head, so that it is safe from power outages, book burnings, solitary confinement and, well, Orwell’s 1984?

Poor old Winston figured that “they” couldn’t get inside your head, but they could. Winston knew that facts held externally were unreliable “the lie becomes truth” and, even although in his society, the past could be referred to, he knew it had been retrospectively altered.

Years ago, it was considered important to know Capital cities, currencies and flags of different countries. It was considered vital to study Shakespeare. I remember having to learn the order of chemicals by their activity through the mnemonic “Please send little Charlie McCarthy a zebra. If the little horse can’t munch send grass please”. Let’s see if that worked: potassium, sodium, lithium, calcium, magnesium, aluminium, zinc, iron, tin, lead, copper, m?, silver, gold, platinum.

Not bad!

But what use has that string of trivia been to me? I can’t remember…

Back in tribal days of oral tradition, anything important would be drummed into your head by learning by rote – memorising sagas and poetry. Children would learn by doing and reciting and revisiting key skills and information. I wonder if they thought it was boring… or did they realise that if they did not study and put knowledge in their minds then so much could be lost?

We were then literate, and everything could be pinned down for easy retrieval – in parchments, books, and now computer files. Knowledge is stored outside our heads so that we can access it whenever we want. Bonus!

After considering this and reading “The Medium is the Massage” yesterday, I had a flashback to RE again and the tradition in Judaism of using phylacteries and the mezuzah. Here’s the verse, the “Shema” from Deuteronomy:

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads, write them on the door-frames of your houses and on your gates.”

Deuteronomy Chapter 6 vs 4-9

I think this straddles the pre-literate and literate phases of this ancient people. There is the encouragement here for oral tradition, with all encompassing talking – every part of the day filled with explanation and discussion of the important things, the commands that had been received. Then the phylacteries bit comes in with the idea that the commands should be physically tied to the hands and head, and put at the gateway to buildings so that the commands would be remembered with every coming and going.

I am back to my postmodernist soup. I feel lonely in the blogosphere and in life in that I believe in absolutes, I believe there is truth and I believe that the Way the Truth and the Life is Jesus Christ. It seems that most people are content to be swimming with a healthy uncertainty, certain only that there can be no certainty.

This embrace of the uncertain I think is clear in education these days. The emphasis is very much on skills and strategies. Content is viewed with suspicion – probably rightly so. How much point is there is teaching children how to write business letters, when they will be unlikely to ever write one, given emails? And if they did have to write a business letter in adult life, they could download a template, or attend a webinar, or … google it. They should just be taught about the skills involved: googling for webinars, downloading templates, sounding formal, being able to spell, sorry, being able to use a spell checker.

The world is changing so fast, anything they are taught will be obsolete by the time they leave. They might as well leave the facts in retrievable sources and access them when required, Big Brother notwithstanding.

Today in church we were listening to a description of the temptations of Christ. His strategy to defeat the devil’s cunning plans was to know the Scriptures. He could refer to the section of the Scriptures near the Shema I quoted earlier so to keep himself clear of wrong-doing.

I was interested, given my current blogging phase, in the following verse that was quoted:

“I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.” Psalm 119 verse 11

Here, the psalmist claims to take God’s word to heart – as encouraged in the Shema – which I suppose is where we get the idea of learning things “off by heart”.

The thing is… my brain is filled with all kinds of stuff. I know a lot by heart. The “Anne of Green Gables” Movies, “Tootsie”, “Joseph and the Amazing technicolour dreamcoat”, a chunk of John chapter 14 and many many fragments of the bible, works of great literature and episodes of Fawlty Towers….

If I was in the wilderness, literally or metaphorically, or didn’t have an iphone or the capacity to google – what would I be able to rely on from the contents of my own mind and heart to sustain me?

If you were going to be put into the desert for 40 days and 40 nights to fast – what would you memorise to keep you sane?

Note – you are fasting – so “How to Forage: a manual” will not be required… 😉


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13 thoughts on “Where do you store your information? Inside or outside your brain?

  1. m for manganese?? (says student of science only to O-Grade Chemistry). I should have Googled it.

    Good post.

  2. Mercury!!

  3. Rickster on said:

    I set an exam question last term for final year engineering students. It was an ‘open book’ exam – basically they could bring all their notes with them. And any books they wanted. Just not their laptops or iPads, although I suspect that might get changed in years to come. So the exam was not to test their memory of facts, like most of the exams I sat as a science undergrad were.

    The problem for me was, given that they have access to all the information, what am I testing them on? What I was really testing them on was how they dealt with situations they previously hadn’t encountered (i.e. the stuff in the exam questions), and I was testing the way they processed the information, selected the appropriate method out of all the things they had learned, and how they applied the method to the task in hand.

    Given the seemingly limitless amount of information or data available to people today, education cannot be to simply teach them how to remember some select chunks of data, it should be training people on how to select the relevant and discount the irrelevant in their chosen field of study. We should be teaching them how to think, not how to remember (although some basic stuff should be there for instant recall). The focus will be increasingly on processing and interpreting data, not on retaining it.

    I’m sure I had another point to make, but I seem to have forgotten it. 😉

  4. I like the old ways, the oral traditions and the written word. I need both because my memory is failing me so a hard copy as back up is required. If I had 40 days and 40 nights in the desert, I would have my memories, my Anne of Green Gables, in my opinion one of the best books written for the young ladies. The peace would be nice, it seems that our world has gotten too noisy. I also believe in the absolutes, be kind, be compassionate, do not judge, be loving and gentle. I love those qualities and they always make me think of Jesus because all the stories that I know and remember of Jesus involve all those qualities.

  5. theotheri on said:

    Rickster – I think your way of teaching is fabulous. Yes, we need to teach our students how to think, not how to remember. Especially the most gifted ones whom we need to contribute their special skills and insights to society. I wish I’d thought of such a creative way of testing my students as you describe.

    But I say that with just a little reservation. The more we remember, the more bits of potentially useful information we have at hand to think with. As a child, I managed to get away with very little memorizing, because I’d learned by age 7 that it was easier to figure out the logic or the strategies behind arithmetic or spelling answers.

    But today I wish I’d memorized more poetry, more historical dates. Not only do I envy my husband’s ability to quote everything from Shakespeare to W.H. Auden. I realize that my memory is weak partly because I’ve never practiced it. They say London taxi drivers have unusually well-developed parts of the brain that they have used for years to get around London. The maps are in their heads. Some very important and mightily useful things can only be learned by memorizing them.

  6. Memorising facts keeps your brain healthy, even if you never use them. Fact. 🙂

  7. Flora on said:

    I wouls agree with Rickster. Learning is a product of thinking, not of teaching

  8. Jackie Paulson on said:

    I love to underline in all books, and keep notebooks of notes and even a diary. Praying for our friend Laurie and her biophys.

  9. Some people teach young children the small bits that make up life, such as how to read and do sums, and teach them processes as they age, such as when to add or subtract, then finally teach them how to explain or teach others once they are older teens. Perhaps there is a time for everything? I know I was required to learn bits, even at church, such as Ps. 23, but sometimes I know I have forgotten important parts.
    In countries where the Bible is forbidden, often only the memorized parts exist. This seems to speak to the ancient ones who memorized all, not having even many copies of the books they did have. I think of wartime burning of libraries, etc., as such tragedies, that today we could fix almost instantly, given enough money.
    Perhaps we use the memorized facts most in our daily encounters, knowing when a given action is good or bad because we know the moral writings, know the laws, etc. We recently were able to negotiate a land trade because we knew we could, due to memorizing our Constitution when we were in high school. Our neighbors missed this, due to ignoring the laws of our land. Or never having been required to learn them. They little suspected they could have profited as we did. There is no computer between us and our REAL ACTUAL communications. We have to know something.
    Love the topic!

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