I can’t recall when memory wasn’t forgotten

I’ve just seen another one of those headlines: ‘Exams testing memory not fit for purpose in 21st century’, or something.  ‘Smartphones exist now’ is basically the point.  Presumably, now that it’s come up in the staffroom, in INSET lectures, at the dinner table and in the TES several hundred times, we’ve all accepted that memorising stuff is pointless and doesn’t have any place in our world of infinite gadgetry anymore.

Of course it used to be important to memorise things, but that was in a different world.  That was when we prepared people for jobs (and it’s all about preparing people for jobs, as I’ve previously written) that required lots and lots of knowledge, not like now.  Now, all one needs to do a job is a set of skills.  If your skill-set includes being able to Google stuff, there’s absolutely no point in knowing the stuff you can Google.  And that’s all because we’re in the 21st century.  Back in the 20th century or before, there was no way of anyone looking anything up, so people just had to memorise everything instead of learning useful stuff.  The rumour about books having existed is just a conspiracy, like global warming.

Yet our education system continues to make a priority of getting people to remember facts.  Look at all those idiots on university challenge, for example.  All they can do is recall facts in response to closed questions.  Completely unemployable failures of the education system, the lot of them.


Just to be clear: I am being sarcastic.  Exercising the ability to memorise and recall is one of the most important things a growing mind should do.  Not just because if I had done it more often I might put the recycling out on the right day, but because it’s fundamental to creative thought and therefore to productive intellectual activity.  I don’t know when the 11-year-old child in front of me will want to be able to name three different African drumming techniques, but that isn’t a good enough reason for me not to teach them to him.

And yes, accuracy of recall is easy to measure in an exam so makes for more straightforward assessment.  Is that so terrible?  Realistically, no piece of paper recording an hour-and-a-half’s-worth of squiggles is ever going to open a window to the soul of the candidate through which the examiner can fairly and profoundly judge said candidate’s intellectual worth, even if exam questions prioritise the pointy end of the Bloom thingy.  Or is it the flat end?  I neither remember nor can be bothered to look it up.

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