Why you can’t just Google it

In my post here, I talked about the pervasive modern idea that Google renders memory irrelevant, and explained why this idea is false. I want to return to this point here with some further explanations.

The best explanation of why you can’t ‘Just Google It’ is by E.D. Hirsch here. Essentially, his point is that:

There is a consensus in cognitive psychology that it takes knowledge to gain knowledge. Those who repudiate a fact-filled curriculum on the grounds that kids can always look things up miss the paradox that de-emphasizing factual knowledge actually disables children from looking things up effectively. To stress process at the expense of factual knowledge actually hinders children from learning to learn. Yes, the Internet has placed a wealth of information at our fingertips. But to be able to use that information—to absorb it, to add to our knowledge—we must already possess a storehouse of knowledge. That is the paradox disclosed by cognitive research.

What I want to focus on here is one wonderful example he gives which proves this point. It is a summary of research done by George Miller, a cognitive psychologist. Miller asked pupils to use dictionaries to look up word meanings and then to use those words in sentences. He got sentences like this:

“Mrs.Morrow stimulated the soup.” (That is she stirred it up.)

“Our family erodes a lot.” (That is they eat out.)

“Me and my parents correlate, because without them I wouldn’t be here.”

“I was meticulous about falling off the cliff.”

“I relegated my pen pal’s letter to her house.”

I instantly recognized this phenomenon. I have read lots and lots of sentences like this, far too many to remember. Two I do remember are:

The weather outside was ingratiating. (after looking up ‘nice’ in a thesaurus.)

He was congenial at football. (after looking up ‘good’.)

What Miller and his fellow researchers did, however, was to extrapolate from this very common occurrence a profound and seemingly counter-intuitive insight, which is that in order to use reference works such as dictionaries, thesauri and encyclopedias, you already need to know quite a lot about the thing you are looking up. As Hirsch says:

Of course, Professor Miller is in favor of dictionaries and encyclopedias in appropriate contexts where they can be used effectively by children and adults. But those contexts turn out to be the somewhat rare occasions when nuances of meaning can be confidently understood. Reference works including the Internet are immensely valuable in those constrained circumstances. But Miller has shown very well why, outside those circumstances, adults use reference resources so infrequently. His observations are well supported by other areas of cognitive psychology.

The whole article by Hirsch, and the article by Miller where he explains these and other ideas, are fascinating and well worth reading.

This is what I love about modern research into cognition. Reading it is like the moment when you read the end of a well-constructed detective story and go ‘Ah! Of course! That’s how it all fits together.’ Modern research in cognitive psychology offers a convincing theoretical framework that seems to me to make sense of so many of the apparently baffling things my students do.

15 responses to “Why you can’t just Google it”

  1. I remember writing that something was a ‘tautology’ when I was at school in year 10 I think, having looked it up and wanting to sound smart. I checked afterwards if I’d used the word correctly… ‘Not quite…’, was the response my teacher pained to give me.

    I wanted to do a small ‘research’ exercise with a year 8 top set, into historical mathematicians. “Kids today are better with computers than we are!” is a line I’ve heard a lot. I’ve come to realise that it’s a generation old; kids today are certainly *not* better with computers than those of us young enough to have grown up with them. Watching some of them try to use Google and Wikipedia to find the information was painful at times, and even on something non-technical like ‘the lives of historical figures’, Wikipedia was sufficiently indecipherable that one of the top performers in the top group in the school remarked ‘I can’t read anything Wikipedia says!’ It dented my optimism for an education system rooted in independent learning.

    • Wikipedia is a great resource, and I wouldn’t be without it. But as a teaching aid, it isn’t very good. Most of the articles are very densely written, some are fairly poorly written, and nearly all of them require an awful lot of background information. In fact, even for people with much more background knowledge, this is the case. I’ve spoken to lots of people who speak about the way you sit down to look one thing up and end up with about ten different tabs open.

  2. Syd Egan says:

    To continue the conversation here…

    Maybe there is an even simpler formulation:

    If you don’t know that there WAS a Battle of Hastings, you can’t Google it!


    (My comment on the original post was VERY narrow and perhaps a little simplistic – that the EXACT year of the Battle of Hastings doesn’t matter – that was all!)

    (And also… the comment was based on attempting to read between the lines re. the original quote, because I couldn’t believe anyone would be so stupid as to actually believe that there was no point in teaching about the battle AT ALL.)

  3. Syd Egan says:

    PS – Some interesting stuff in there about vocabulary too, which (for me) emphasizes the importance of language learning, which (aside from the more obvious benefits in terms of communication) widens the vocabulary, and deepens one’s understanding of one’s own language.

  4. Teach students to use the ‘reading level’ filter on google searches, this helps them find reading material suitable for their needs (can push them towards ‘advanced’ materials as well as help find more ‘basic’ ones). Also encourage the use of Simple Wikipedia for students who otherwise struggle.

    Ultimately, the internet is not that different to an encyclopedia or a textbook with an index. It probably is the most expedient way to get new factual information but it can’t be the totality of one’s education.

  5. […] to memorise anything. This is the ‘Just Google It’ fallacy which I dealt with briefly here and here, and which E.D. Hirsch deals with comprehensively here.[vi] Put simply, to be able to effectively […]

  6. Whilst what you say here is compelling, how do you square it with Sugata Mitra’s findings about child driven education? I’d be interested in what you had to say about this: http://learningspy.co.uk/?p=734

    • Of course this experiment is very inspiring, and if the choice is between no education and the ‘Hole in the Wall’, then the latter is clearly better than nothing. But the sample sizes here are tiny, the control groups not really controls (being an ‘elite urban private school’ doesn’t mean that the school offers a great education) and the time scale short. The findings from the schools in north-east England are not explained in statistical detail in the paper I read – perhaps they can be found somewhere else? Also, the attempt at a theoretical framework is really quite flimsy – “A study with connected cellular automata by Mitra and Kumar (2006) shows that presented with a ‘vision of the future’, a self-organising system will retain this image as a fractal and reproduce it periodically. The human brain is a connected system of
      neurons and will, presumably, behave similarly. In other words, the introduction (intervention)
      of an image to a neural network will cause it to retain and reproduce this image periodically. It is tempting, albeit speculatively, to link this effect with human learning.” Mitra is right on one thing – this conclusion is entirely speculative and as far as I know has no other evidence to back it up. As they are presented, Mitra’s conclusions contradict many other similar experiments and most modern neuroscience. As that is the case, I would like to see a lot more trials like this, with greater sample sizes and more reliable controls, before I could be convinced. And I would like to see this evidence buttressed by a reliable and testable theory of how the brain learns.

  7. […] Myth one: It is possible to outsource memory to the internet.  […]

  8. […] – E.D. Hirsch’s You Can Always Look It Up…Or Can You? I have also written about it here, here and here. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this […]

  9. […] One of the main reasons against subject-based education is that traditional subjects are outdated, fail to take into account advances in technology and are and not fit for purpose in the 21st century. I’ve criticised the idea of ’21st century skills’ here and the idea that technology will replace memory here. […]

  10. […] something last night that you don’t know.’ As well as repeating the myth that you can just Google it, Johnson’s argument here is a bit rude about his members. I would love to see evidence of all […]

  11. […] As an interesting aside, one of the seminal works in the research on the limitations of human judgment is George Miller’s paper The Magical Number Seven. I knew of this paper in a different context: it is also a seminal work in the field of working memory, and the limitations of working memory. Miller also wrote the excellent, and very practical, article ‘How Children Learn Words‘, which shows how looking words up in dictionaries and other reference sources may not be the best strategy for learning new vocabulary. I’ve written a bit about this here. […]

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