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Over the past couple of days, David Warlick has posted several times about the decreasing need for students to memorize discrete, unconnected factual bits of academic course content:

Although David has blogged about this issue before, he says in his second post that he may have come off a bit 'over zealous' the day before. I'm not sure that he did, but I might reframe the issue slightly.

Here is the landscape as I see it:

  1. We are rapidly nearing almost-ubiquitous wireless connectivity, at least in more-advantaged countries. WiMax, EV-DO, and similar, already-existing technologies show us that this is a thing of the near future, not dreamy science fiction. I don't think it's unreasonable to guess that within 10 to 15 years your wireless device will be able to connect to the Internet at all times in most places. Even in the wildnerness of Minnesota's Boundary Waters, you'll be able to surf the Web (now, whether you would want to or should is a different issue; the bottom line is that you'll be able to).
  2. We already have small, portable devices - cell phones, PDAs, laptops - that can connect to the Internet at fairly reasonable speeds.
  3. We already have pretty decent voice recognition software, even the kind that doesn't have to be trained to your individual voice (think, for example, telephone airline reservations systems). We also have pretty decent text-to-speech software. Both will continue to improve and surely will be much better by the time ubiquitous wireless connectivity occurs.

Put these all together and you have a portable device that you can talk to, that can talk back to you, and that can connect to the Internet anywhere, anytime. In other words, you can ask the device on your hip a question (What's the capital of Slovakia? What is a gerund? What is photosynthesis?) and get the answer back as spoken text, as a diagram, as a video, etc., all within reasonable wait time.

Once all of this converges, the question is not "Do students still need to memorize stuff in school?" There always will be some core knowledge that students need, if only so that they know enough to be able to access more complex information that they haven't memorized and to judge the worth and credibility of that new information. Instead, I believe the questions become:

  1. In light of this new information technology / access landscape, what do students still need to memorize?,
  2. What are we now asking students to memorize that they don't really need to?, and
  3. How can we better use precious school time?

Note the emphasis on what, not if, in the first question. While there will be some core that students need to memorize, I'm guessing that the list will be a lot smaller than it is now (e.g., when's the last time most arguably-successful adults used sine, cosine, and tangent? needed to know, without being able to look it up, the difference between an acute and obtuse angle? needed to use Newton's Second Law? needed to name the capital of South Dakota or the fifth U.S. President?).

In the end, this is all part of the ongoing tension between conservative and progressive ideologies of education that's been simmering for at least a century. To greatly oversimplify: memorization (see E.D. Hirsch) versus critical thinking (see John Dewey). What's different now, of course, are two things...

  1. The fact that technology makes it unbelievably easy to look up almost anything, factual or otherwise, qualitatively changes the discussion in ways that it never could when one had to go look something up in a printed book (if there was even one close enough to be convenient); and
  2. The fact that the mental skills necessary for workers to survive and thrive in a technology-suffused, globally-interconnected, creative class economy are different than those needed by workers in the industrial age factory line economy. It is these latter '21st Century skills' that are exactly what employers are looking for (see, e.g., the recent TIME article, or the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, or the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce or David Thornburg, or ...).

Future-oriented schools (and schools of education) would start discussing the three questions above now.