Myth Four – You can always just look it up

Posted on 14-06-2013

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.