Mental Mishaps

Errors in perceiving, remembering, and thinking.

The World in My Pocket

All the world's knowledge is in my pocket.

My students carry the world in their pockets. All the knowledge in the world is constantly available through a computer, a tablet, or a smart phone. I’m still not used to constantly available knowledge. But my students have grown up with constantly available knowledge and it is changing their relationship to knowledge.

Of course some people in the older generations are sure this is ruining the millennials. They don’t bother to learn, they can’t be bothered with knowledge that is difficult to access or immediately understand, they have no patience, they expect everything right now.

I’m sure some people felt the same way about the invention of writing. Easily available paper and books was sure to ruin people and the world. People used to be trained in mnemonics, the use of memory skills. People memorized their speeches and learned to tell history through oral traditions. But the invention of writing meant that history could recorded in more permanent structures than the human brain. No one learns mnemonic strategies such as the method of loci anymore (accept in cognitive psychology classes and as a parlor trick). And the world didn’t fall apart with the invention of writing; it flourished.

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I’m pretty sure that the world will flourish with constantly available knowledge. In the dark ages when I was a student, finding knowledge was hard. I spent hours in the library searching for the right set of journal articles and the correct books to help make my arguments. The work is faster now and I find a lot of things I would have missed before – thanks to Google Scholar and other brilliant search systems. Many of the articles I want to read are immediately available, but sometimes I have to wait 24 hours for inter-library loan systems to work. I teach my students that waiting 24 hours is reasonable. I’m sure even these short waits will disappear soon.

In the dark days, I couldn’t carry all the relevant knowledge with me when working on a task. I used to have two files cabinets full of reprints of journal articles. I couldn’t even remember everything I had in my files. Simply to be prepared to answer student questions, I had to remember a lot of information about a lot of topics. I was tied to my office for most of my writing tasks. I still carry most of that knowledge in my head, but I carry a lot more on my tablet computer on which I am writing this blog-post. I can do my work anywhere now. Of course, there is a sense in which it is silly to keep information on my computer when it is available on the internet and I can store it in the cloud. But I’m old. I like having my own copies.

My students are better at this. Yes, it is important that they remember many of the basic concepts. But they know how to search for information. Of course, much of the information they search for is cat videos. But when they need academic materials, or the answer to a question, or just a good restaurant nearby with an open table – they are fast. They remember where information is and how to find it again (something I wrote about earlier in Google My Memory). This may also mean that after they study something away, they invest less effort in remembering it. Potentially this leads to forgetting things when they take a picture (see Photographs and Memories). Why keep something in my head (on even in my file cabinet or on my computer) when it is always available?

I think this should push our education system forward. I’ve always tested for basic knowledge in my classes. I think my students should have the basic concepts in their heads and shouldn’t have to look up everything each time they encounter it. But I’ve always been more interested in assessing critical thinking skills. Can students apply the knowledge? Can students engage in theoretical reasoning within the domain? Can students use new knowledge to update their understanding? Can they integrate knowledge into a coherent argument? When we don’t have to worry about memorizing everything and don’t have to labor finding new information, we can concentrate on using that knowledge.

Easily searchable knowledge highlights an important change we need to make in education. We used to spend a lot of effort teaching students to find information. That isn’t the problem any longer. Now the problem is TMI – Too Much Information. Google (or other search engines) finds thousands and millions of things related to almost any search term proposed. We need to educate our students to select and evaluate that information. This is another aspect of critical thinking that I’m emphasizing more as I teach.

So I’m not complaining about the internet generation. I’m welcoming them. Maybe we shouldn’t call this generation the millenials or the selfie generation. Perhaps we should call them the knowledge generation.

Ira E. Hyman, Jr., Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at Western Washington University.

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