‘Remembering and Forgetting in the Age of Technology’: An Interview with Michelle D. Miller
I first encountered the work of Michelle Miller in an article she had written designed to inform teachers about recent research on memory. The combination of her accessible writing style and her obvious command of this important field made me an immediate fan of her work, and I have been following her research ever since then. I was thus thrilled when she agreed to publish her second book, Remembering and Forgetting in the Age of Technology: Teaching, Learning, and the Science of Memory in a Wired World (2022), in our Teaching and Learning in Higher Education book series at West Virginia University Press. Both teachers and the public at large have many commonly-held beliefs about how our memories work, and about the ways in which technologies today are impacting our learning. Miller’s work cuts through many of the half-truths that many of have absorbed in these areas, trains her expert eye on the research, and clarifies what we know and what we are still figuring out. I caught up with Miller shortly after her book was published, and invited her to share some of the backstory of the book, and talk about her writing practices.
James M. Lang, Ph.D.
1. How would you describe the core question or problem you intended to address in the book?
I’d been fascinated for a while with the ways in which memory might be changing as a function of technologies like smartphones and search engines, and especially on how my academic discipline of cognitive psychology might shed light on that question. Because I teach a course on technology and the mind, I was already seeing a steady stream of new studies coming out on the topic, and I kept wondering how these research findings might all tie together into a coherent story of sorts. The concept for the book really came together when I thought to look at the topic through a more practical lens that of teaching and learning in higher education. Through West Virginia University Press I got the opportunity to do just that, and that is how this book came to be!
2. What was most challenging to you in terms of actually writing or editing the book?
The hardest part was definitely deciding what to leave out! Because I’m so interested in memory and technology to begin with, I ended up exploring some pretty far-flung tangents: obscure phenomena involving global positioning technologies and memory, studies about life logging hobbyists who save all the details of their days, debates over attention deficit disorders and so on. It was sometimes hard to stay focused on practical advice for teachers and to make sure the most important points could really shine through. Fortunately, great editing and thoughtful peer review makes doing this a lot easier and I’m extremely grateful to have had both.
3. Is writing a pleasurable act for you? How do you find the energy and space for it in a busy academic schedule?
I’d say that the territory on either side of the actual writing is pleasurable, yes! I love the planning and outlining and frankly the daydreaming that happens at the outset of a big project. I also enjoy editing what I’ve written, especially at that micro-level where you’re fine-tuning at the level of phrases and finding just the right words. But that middle part of getting draft to paper isn’t fun! It is satisfying, but so difficult. I draw on a few tricks to make the drafting stage not so daunting. I’m an avid knitter, and tapping into that mentality has helped me stay positive and patient as I see the project build up incrementally (even when it doesnâ€™t turn out exactly like the picture I started with). I also tap into my social-scientist obsession with data. I love setting up word count logs and tracking systems – these help me stay on schedule and maximize that sense of satisfaction as I go along.
During the academic year I do try to keep up a regular writing practice, with the goal of having at least 3-5 productive sessions per week. Early morning isnâ€™t my best time for writing (or anything else), but I try to schedule those sessions reasonably early in the day to give myself the best chance of actually getting to them. Disruptions are inevitable though, so I try to extend myself grace when I end up having to put writing on hold for a while â€“ especially if it is to meet the needs of my students, as they are my top priority during the year. During the summer, my schedule is a lot simpler, so I can ramp up the pace then and see the results stack up more quickly.
4. What are three quick recommendations or takeaways you would want readers (or potential readers) to know from the book?
First, if you have the strong intuition that content knowledge plays an important role in learning this book will validate those intuitions and help you channel them into learning activities and approaches that accelerate the development of that knowledge. Second, if you are one of the many thoughtful and caring educators who are deeply skeptical of the role of memory in learning I respect that! I believe that emphasizing memory and content can peacefully coexist with the kind of supportive, creativity-enhancing, even playful teaching that I think most of us want to provide.
Overall, I’d encourage all educators to question the simple stories that are sometimes pushed on us that memory isnâ€™t important in an age of technology, that teachers have to choose between content knowledge and thinking skills, that technology is wiping out our cognitive abilities across the board. Take a fresh look at these simple stories, because there is new research that contradicts all of them, and as educators we’re perfectly positioned to put that research into action.
5. Finally, how can readers find out more about you, learn from you, and connect to you? Are you available for virtual and on-campus workshops and presentations? If so, how should people contact you?
Right now, LinkedIn is my preferred platform for connecting on social media: https://www.linkedin.com/in/mdmillerphd/
I also have a web site with information about the workshops and speaking I do: https://michellemillerphd.com
That site is where readers can find my blog, which has lots of short pieces on learning, psychology, and higher education. My blogging productivity has taken a big hit over the last year because of the new book, but I hope to get some new posts up soon.
People can visit my Academia.edu profile to find my publications and teaching-related materials: https://nau.academia.edu/MichelleMiller
Lastly, I always welcome emails with questions or comments about teaching or any of the topics I write about: email@example.com
Email is also a great way to inquire about virtual and on-campus presentations, which are one of my favorite ways to engage with fellow educators.
Excerpt from the book
If you’d like to get a roomful of teachers up in arms, suggest that their life’s work is all about getting students to memorize facts.
If there was ever a school of thought in education that triggered backlash, it’s this one: teaching that relies on repetitive memory drills, with the measure of success being how well students can parrot back information. It’s an old school indeed, but the specter of the teacher-as-memorization-cop still fills us with indignation. Even those of us who are too young to have personally endured an actual rote-memorization drill still somehow have a sense of what such drills are like, and an associated sense of dread.
Taking shots at the idea of memory and memorization is a signature move of education pundits. The late, beloved advocate Sir Ken Robinson took this to a new level in his wildly popular TED talk[i] titled “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” Throughout the presentation, Robinson explicitly and implicitly pits rote learning against learning that involves creativity, self-expression, and original thinking. The argument goes like this: Traditional education has suffered with a fixation on what students can spit back in the form of memorized information, and in doing so, neglects and even actively obstructs students’ ability to engage in sophisticated reasoning.
Some important context is that this kind of critique is framed, in the United States at least, against a decades-long trend towards frequent, onerous, and high-stakes standardized testing in K-12 education. This is a policy trend that citizens commonly despise for myriad reasons; in the minds of many, it’s tied to the practice of memorization-oriented teaching. The complications around standardized testing in public K-12 education are beyond my expertise as a higher education faculty member, and one without a policy background at that. But I believe that tensions over this issue do bleed over into opinions about college-level teaching, leading people to reflexively dismiss the idea of building a knowledge base as any part of “real” learning.
We see this implicit assumption reflected in other ways as well. Consider Bloom’s Taxonomy,[ii] a scheme taught to generations of educators as a way to organize all the different things we are typically trying to accomplish with our teaching. If you teach, you’ve probably seen it in one form or another, usually presented as a collection of verbs: know, understand, apply, evaluate and so on, all corresponding to things we want students to be able to do.
Bloom’s system is unapologetically hierarchical, which is why it’s often illustrated with a pyramid.[iii] And in this hierarchy of teaching and learning objectives, memory is squarely on the bottom. Whenever I look at Bloom’s Taxonomy, I’m reminded of the U.S. government’s food pyramid, where the bottom layer – remembering – corresponds to something like white flour, and the rest – synthesizing, evaluating, creating – lives up in the land of filet mignon, raw organic kale, and wild-caught Alaskan salmon.[iv] The implication here is clear – excellent teachers don’t spend their time in the bargain basement of learning, but concentrate instead on the good stuff up at the top.
That’s the first objection to emphasizing memory in our teaching. Here’s the other, more modern one: Now that we have so much information available on the internet, and can access so much of it any time, any place, it’s simply not necessary to commit things to our own individual memories. In this way, expecting students to be able to recall facts is about as up-to-date as the skills of the roving bards of ancient times, the fellows whose stock in trade was the ability to reel off memorized epic sagas to illiterate audiences in the time before books (and Netflix).
David Pogue sums up this idea in a piece titled “Smartphones Mean You Will No Longer Have to Memorize Facts,” speculating that “maybe we’ll soon conclude that memorizing facts is no longer part of the modern student’s task. Maybe we should let the smartphone call up those facts as necessary–and let students focus on developing analytical skills (logic, interpretation, creative problem solving) and personal ones (motivation, self-control, tolerance).”[v] Pogue’s prediction in the piece is that the memorization aspect of learning, once considered bedrock, will go the way of Morse code and elevator operating as an obsolete skill – and good riddance, because we instead want what modern life really demands, robust critical thinking skills.
No one wants to be the teacher who is obsessing over irrelevant, antiquated skills. Definitely no one wants to be the teacher who is crushing students’ ability to think for themselves, their creativity, or their very spirit. So it’s understandable that memorization is ingrained in our collective professional consciousness as something to avoid.
But there are good reasons to question our discomfort, and perhaps to come to some different conclusions about the value of memory and even rote memorization as part of what we do.
Michelle Miller presents two common arguments for why teachers should not worry about having students memorize course material. Following her presentation of these arguments, the book explains what cognitive psychologists have learned recently about the essential role that memorization plays in supporting deep learning. Do you help students commit learned material to memory? Why or why not?
[i]. Robinson, K. (2006, February). Do schools kill creativity? [Video]. TED Conferences. https://www.ted.com/talks/sir_ken_robinson_do_schools_kill_creativity
[ii]. Bloom, B. S., Engelhart, M., Furst, E. J., Hill, W., & Krathwohl, D. R. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives, Handbook I: Cognitive domain. Longman. For an updated version of this familiar learning pyramid, see Anderson, L. W., & Krathwohl, D. R. (Eds.). (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching and assessing: A revision of Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives: Complete edition. Longman. For a recent illustration and explanation of Bloom’s key concepts, see https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/blooms-taxonomy/
[iii] However, there are some alternative depictions that don’t use the pyramid metaphor. For examples, see Knapp, M. (2016, October 11). 5 gorgeous depictions of Bloom’s taxonomy. https://news.nnlm.gov/nto/2016/10/11/5- gorgeous-depictions-of-blooms-taxonomy/
[iv] For a similar take on the hierarchical nature of Bloom’s taxonomy, see Lang, J. (2016). Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning. Jossey-Bass.
[v]. Pogue, D. (2013). Smartphones mean you will no longer have to memorize facts. Scientific American, 1:5. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/smartphones-mean-no-longer-memorize-facts/