Myth Four – You can always just look it up

This blog post summarises chapter 4 of my book Seven Myths about Education. It will be published on March 5th 2014 by Routledge. To read the introduction to this sequence of posts, click here. Click here to preorder if you are in the UK, and here if you are in the US.

This chapter is about the very popular idea that the invention of Google means we no longer have to remember things. I cite a few examples of professors and teachers who make this case, although I could have cited a lot more: if I had to pick, I would say that this myth is the one I hear most in everyday conversations, sometimes even amongst people who are not involved in education. I then show some lesson examples from Ofsted and the RSA which assume that pupils can depend on the knowledge being ‘out there’. Actually, the limitations of working memory mean that we have to have a store of facts in long-term memory in order to be able to think. Not only that, but in order to use reference tools like Google and Wikipedia effectively, you need a great deal of knowledge to begin with.  This chapter builds on a previous blog post of mine you can find here.

Just after I’d finished writing this post, a friend sent me a link to an article by Justin Webb in the Radio Times (H/T @fairgroundtown). Here are some extracts.

  • ‘You do not need to know anything any more. Knowing things is hopelessly 20th century. The reason is that everything you need to know – things you may previously have memorised from books – is (or soon will be) instantly available on a handheld device in your pocket.’
  • ‘Why waste your time learning facts when they are on your phone, all the time, in your pocket? And soon on a tattoo on your arm, or on your shirt, or a pair of glasses.’
  • ‘What fascinates me about the new world is that along with there being no need to know things comes a massive need to be able to manipulate information when you find it…the key to entering this lucrative professional class will be knowing what do with knowledge, not knowing the knowledge itself.’

These are all perfect examples of this myth, and a perfect example of how this myth has gone mainstream, promoted by journalists in the popular press, not just by educationalists in unread tomes.


8 thoughts on “Myth Four – You can always just look it up

  1. themodernmiss

    If people don’t learn how to ‘know things’ as pupils, then why would they feel the need to do so as adults? But then, perhaps the argument is that adults don’t need to know things either, as they can look them up.
    I’m sure everyone would have no problem at all with the doctor who had to look up ‘stomach pains’ before coming to the conclusion a patient had appendicitis, or the plumber who was furiously scanning his iPad before taking a blow-torch to the gas boiler…

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  6. Barry Naylor

    Interesting post as always.

    Interesting assertions that “you can always look it up” actually means that there is no longer any point in remembering things.

    There are lots of people in this world who have imperfect understandings of facts, concepts and ideas, it is part of being human.

    At first glance I was minded to ask why you would possibly wish to quote Justin Webb as he clearly is uninformed. This would probably have been met by a response of “I was only trying to increase sales of the book” but on reflection I decided not to.

    I thought back to my own childhood (I am now 55). I thought back to my own childhood and my love of space, dinosaurs and nature. Much of this stuff was only briefly covered in school.

    How did I solve this dilemma?

    I read my parents Encyclopedia Brittanica. I went to the library and read book on my favourite subjects. I read magazines, talked to my friends and watched TV.

    In short, I looked it up.

    Now I log on here. I look at blogs by Daisy, Wenofsubstance and Oldandrew. I see links to interesting research which leads me to interesting research etc etc.

    If I want to find out what has happened to Tommy Boyle, the radio guy I used to listen to, I looked it up.

    I very much appreciate the fact that I am able to do google searches to find the information I want. I very much appreciate the fact that I can evaluate the information I find and on reflection I find I know a little bit more.

    Just as I did in 1968, I look it up. I have a coupdl of masters degrees and a successful working life. I own my own house and am in the position that I don’t have to do the things that SMT might demand.

    I still look it up and I don’t feel I have been disadvantaged. maybe I coud have been Einstein or John Nash if I had been drilled with more facts rather than spending my time looking it up. But I think not.

    I appreciate that I can now look it up more easily that I could in 1968. I just wish we had the internet when I was a kid. I don’t often wish I had been taught more facts in school.

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