Clouds, Testing, and a Student’s Mind

LeiLani Cauthen, Publisher

The advent of devices in the hands of so many students is causing new insights into what it means to learn.  Learning is not just a byproduct of teachers and instructional planners busily trying to ready students for tests.  Memorization and some reasoning skills aren’t the “all” of learning.  Machines can memorize data better, anyway, and keep it forever exactly as given.  They do have a little trouble with reasoning skills, just ask Siri.  In fact, this is the very rough real divide between humans and machines – reasoning versus data-keeping.  But probably not for long.  Artificial intelligence, if only a hyper data collation intelligence, is catching up in terms of access-and-differentiate.  Real reasoning, logic, extrapolation, and adding relevant data beyond what a machine might have stored to find a solution -- those are still solidly human. 

Yet here’s the thing…

Machines are the perfect vehicle for knowledge storage, if “tagged” in a multiplicity of ways so you can find it again.  When that occurs, here’s what we do as humans:  we stop storing the file ourselves.  We put it “over there.”  We get completely out of the habit of taking a mental picture of things like what was written on the blackboard one day.  A good percentage of all children have what has been called in the past an “eidetic memory,” an ability to have picture-perfect recall.  Science tells us this ability fades as we grow older.  That’s when notebooks appear, giving us a manual way of going back to remember through the symbols of words.  The new digital storage of both images and text, even full-motion video, is allowing a much deeper memory note-taking “transference” on the learning scene that has not been there before.  It may be better for learning, it may be worse for learning.  Or it just might be different and incomparable. We don’t really know yet. 

The implications in the school environment are numerous.  Any smart phone gives students a calculator and access to a wealth of knowledge in seconds.  Teachers tend to try to shut down smart phones and may even limit computer access.  The shift from direct instruction to students accessing knowledge from everywhere without having to work for it is a major transformation.  It is both easier on a teacher and harder. 

Implications for Content Absorption

Students not having to work to find things, combined with information being fed in small news-bites at lightning speeds, means to them that an untethered classroom as an experience is an agonizingly slow alternative.  Remember how retail stores used to be at Christmas before you did all your shopping in-advance online?  Just how would you feel if you had to go to a retail store the day before Christmas to get a last-minute present you forgot to get, spend an hour circling just to get a parking spot and then stand in line? What if you still had to meet with a travel agent to plan any travel or go sit and wait in a bank to take out a loan? Yeah, it’s like that.  The implications for content absorption has yet to be fully explored from the normalizing of speed and “chunked” bits of data. 

Humans have a Cloud, Too

Among the other implications of devices entering the learning environment, there is a new twist about student data certainty – “knowing” the data -- that we’re learning from machines.  Simply, machines store things in hardware storage places. These places are any place, even if it is “in the cloud” somewhere in Missouri.  The cloud isn’t just the ether, it’s a server somewhere across the internet.  It seems like it’s a cloud because we do not know where it is.

Like machines, we store memory with places. What’s interesting about all this is that, as a teacher if you do a good job bringing knowledge you may become a part of the certainty.  Let that sink in.  The memory by the student is invested in you and the environment, and not always just within the student themselves.

Imagine if humans also natively stored data in a sort of “cloud,” a physically transcendent one that machines are only mimicking with networks and servers.  It turns out that this is true.  We have “place memory” according to scientists cited in The Atlantic.  We have identity through the spaces we occupy, so it makes sense that we attach memory to spaces and “remember better” the things that happened to us when we are again in those same spaces.  We also have “other-person” memory and make up our identity from the people we are with. Just like place memory we remember better the things we learned from those people when we are with those people again.  It could be said that spaces and people are our “cloud.”  Scientists are studying memory as more than a cultural or sociological phenomenon now, taking it into realms of geography and human communication. 

Why point this out?  Memory is inextricably tied to certainty.  When you have good memory, you can be certain of your name, your phone number, your place in life – and are able answer to questions. To find that we store memories with places, as if we’ve “tagged” them into a database to only be retrieved easily when we are again in those same spaces or with those same people, is eerily similar to search engine optimization.  Like machines, we store memory with places.

Student’s Can “Outsource” Data Certainty to YOU or the SPACE

What’s interesting about all this is that, as a teacher if you do a good job bringing knowledge you may become a part of the certainty.  Let that sink in.  The memory by the student is invested in you and the environment, and not always just within the student themselves. It depends on how they’ve “tagged” it in their mind.  This means that possibly in the individual student’s mind, the memory isn’t “in the brain” or their head from their unconscious perspective, it is placed in the environment or other person like machines place data out in the cloud.  With a sort of “tag.” The certainty of the data is to that degree perceived as “outside of self,” outsourced to you or the space.  You or the space are the file storage.  Machines do this well on a mechanical real-world level, and they faultlessly retrieve it from a distance whereas humans have a curious tendency to retrieve better when again in the same space as if the associative space tag they gave the memory has more weight.      

Did they LEARN Anything?

If humans use others and space to distribute the triggers of their own memory, and they “leave” those triggers to be useful only when again in that space or with that person, does this mean the student learned anything?  I would argue no, but you decide for yourself.  Learning is usually not data alone anyway, but reasoning skill.  “Associative memory” is the psychological definition of what we do with memory attached to others or things, but seen as just described, it is also a file and retrieval system.  I’m just pointing this all out because it has important implications for teaching and learning, particularly in the digital transition. 

Keep to Less Spaces

For one thing, if associative memory is real, it totally explains why we remember so little of what we learn.  We are just not in those spaces or with those people anymore.  It could also mean that the very best testing results would come from testing students in the same room they learned the data and with the teachers present for testing even if only within sight. It could mean we should keep students pretty much in the same general space, perhaps a much larger one with labs in the center and rotation by subjects in the perimeter.  In this way we short-circuit the confusion created by multiple rooms and a dizzying schedule, dispersing learning memory all over the place, and can enhance attempts to retrieve memory on tests.  Else limit to one room of “class” and one of homework as much as possible.   It’s worth a try. 

For another thing, there could be “degrees” of associative filing, such that we place nearly all our learning out in the cloud with the space and the teacher.  This could be if we don’t really want to learn what we are being taught and are more interested in other things, so we leave perhaps ninety percent of the memory away from us, creating distance and perhaps a sort of human automatic server failure to forget.  It could be because the teacher is predominant, and the space is predominant, and we are small.  It’s not “ours,” but “theirs” and “that place’s.”  Perhaps this is why students usually answer “nothing,” when they go home, and their parents ask them what happened in school that day. 

Of course, no memory is perfect, and we do forget, but perhaps in many ways we have also forgotten to ask ourselves why we can remember some things but not equations.  Are we clearing out memory routinely like we kick off the bad photos on our smart phones, so we can take some more?  Or does memory age out like old microfilm being supplanted by digital and so forth?  Or do we purposely “leave it somewhere else”?

Great Boon or Extreme Danger

Schools really just want to see students achieve, and now machines are teaching us about ourselves in unexpected ways.  They are also offering thousands of new resources, teachers and space, all unlimitedly if the student is taught to reason that these things are at a distance from themselves and always available to supplement their knowledge.  This on-demand aspect out in the ether is empowering.  It can be a new extralimital awareness (without limits), but also associates the function of memory to an unlimited “nowhere.”  This could be a great boon, as it displaces the associative logic of memory (of putting what’s learned into a specific place or person) and transfers it nearer, in and through the device we hold.  Wow.  In the reverse, devices have the observable characteristic of being fairly addictive, tied to us. As such they can become the associative memory carried with us in our same space, possibly ridiculing any of our inabilities constantly because they are with us all the time.  Thus, they have great positive power, but conversely an extreme danger.   Teachers have been wise to sense this.

Education leaders need to see these deeper issues, and discuss them for their pros and cons.  Understanding associative logic is an important part of being designed for digital as schools address user interface issues. 




Recent Articles


This is Part Two of a New Monthly Series, The Brief History of the Future of Education. If You Missed Part One, You Can Read it Here.


Ryan L Schaaf

PublicSchoolWORKS formulates effective safety programs for school districts across the U.S.

Kenna McHugh, Learning Counsel Writer
News Clip

3rd year in school spending increases marked a "full recovery" from recession | College Board to add 'Adversity Score' to SAT | Oregon OKs expansion of federal free lunch program | Non-Degree credentials boost employment & life outcomes