External Memory

As a middle-aged woman (sounds awful, doesn’t it?!) I didn’t grow up with computers or the internet but started using computers as glorified typewriters at university and gradually moved onto email and internet. My students (mostly in their twenties) have, however, grown up with computers. Their pupils (secondary school pupils) can’t imagine how life must have been pre-internet! It struck me recently that we all joke about the term ‘external memory’ but that we do, in fact, seem to share an external memory – the internet. My students, teacher trainees, all have a fairly traditional academic background and yet even that is somewhat different to my own. “In my day” I hear myself saying with a wince, we had to read books and write long essays and at the end of each year we had exams. At university we even had exams after four years based on the knowledge and understanding accrued during our entire course. In the Netherlands many university subjects are short courses (some even only 5 weeks) followed by exams and then a totally new course. I wonder if this has an effect on memory – does this not encourage the use of short term memory only? Does it mean the ‘older generation’ have better or different memories or memory structures or even brains?

And what about the children at school? The school systems are full of tests (not just in NL, of course) and almost every single one of my teacher trainees indicates that the schools test short term memory i.e. work your way through chapter 1 then test it; move on to chapter 2, test it etc generally without there being a deliberate recycling moment for all the items studied over a longer period. Ok, learning a foreign language (in this case EFL) means building up on what you know, so along the way a great deal of knowledge will be recycled but it’s strange that after four years of this education many of these pupils still cannot master some very basic things. I believe firmly that if a pupils fails a test he should be obliged to re-sit it until he passes so that I know he has a grasp of the basic material (even if the school insists only the first grade counts – I don’t care so much for grades but for learning). I don’t make tests to test the holes but the cheese! If a pupil fails a test and we just simply move on to the next chapter then how can I expect him to ever pass if he doesn’t understand what went wrong or simply never gets round to learning it? It’s like I’m undermining my own test and the reason for it – it’s a moment for reflection, a moment to demonstrate what you can do and not what you can’t. It’s a moment for me to see if my teaching has been hitting the mark; a moment to look back and see if there are gaps I need to address.

And then there’s the matter of how it affects attitudes. If we know we share this worldwide memory (I, too, am frequently guilty of this) then it’s all too easy to rely on looking it up on the internet rather than concentrating long enough to remember it. Perhaps this isn’t actually very important – it’s the way the world is moving. We ‘old folk’ sometimes have to accept changes (such as the split infinitive rule – remember the old Star Trek blurb “to boldly go”?) and I think change is healthy (imagine still having to talk about thee, thou, shewn etc) but I wonder if this will actually have an effect on our brains. Could it be that the memory part of our brain will reduce in size and that we’ll grow larger visual capacity for example? Any ideas?

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