Global Education and Skills Forum 2018

Posted on 20-03-2018

Last weekend I spoke at the Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai. I spoke for the motion in the following debate: ‘”I can just Google it” is making us stupid.’ You can see the video here. I’ve put a transcript of my speech below, together with references.

In a letter to a friend, the ancient philosopher Seneca recounted the story of a rich Roman merchant who wanted to appear as though he was a very well-read man. This merchant decided that instead of actually reading books himself, he would instead hire a team of slaves to do it for him. “He spent an enormous amount of money on slaves: one of them to know Homer by heart, another to know Hesiod, while he assigned one apiece to each of the nine lyric poets. Then, he used these slaves to give his dinner guests nightmares: He would have these fellows at his elbow so that he could continually be turning to them for quotations from these poets which he might repeat to the company.”[1]

Of course, no one nowadays has slaves to remember things for them. But we do all feel very comfortable with the idea that we can outsource our memories to Google. In my book, Seven Myths about Education, I devoted a chapter to collecting examples of technologists and educationalists telling us that remembering things just isn’t necessary in a world with ubiquitous smartphones.[2]

These people are wrong, and they are dangerously wrong. And it is not just ancient writers like Seneca who tell us they are wrong. There is a whole body of modern scientific literature which makes the same point. Somewhat ironically, a great deal of this research derives from the work of Herbert Simon, one of the pioneers of artificial intelligence and modern computing. What we know from this research about how the brain works is that memory and attention are two vital parts of our intellectual equipment.[3] We also know that memory and attention are under siege from modern technology like never before.[4] Let us consider these two vital components in turn: why do they matter, and why are they under threat from technology?

First, memory. Our memories matter because we need facts stored in long-term memory in order to be able to think. This is because our working memory – what you might think of as consciousness – is extremely limited and can handle only about 4 – 7 new items of information. That isn’t nearly enough to do anything complex like driving a car, or reading a book. But we can cheat working memory’s limitations – not by hiring a bunch of slaves or using Google, but by committing facts to long term memory. This is why memorising times tables matters. When you solve a complex real world maths problem, you have to process a lot of information in working memory. If you also have to stop every second to type the times tables into your smartphone, your working memory will quickly be overwhelmed, and you will not be able to solve the problem. You’ll forget what the start of the problem was by the time you get to the end.[5] As one group of researchers have said, long term memory is the seat of human intellectual skill.[6] What we know influences how we see the world, how we think and how we reason. Intuition and creativity are the function of large well-memorised bodies of knowledge clashing against each other.[7] We can’t outsource this stuff.

If memory is so important, how do we make memories? The simplest answer is that we remember what we pay attention to – and that brings me to the second thing I want to talk about – attention.[8] If we pay attention to something, we are more likely to remember it. Our attention determines our memories. And nearly all of the major technology companies make their money by harvesting our attention, and selling it to advertisers.[9] These companies have invented increasingly sophisticated methods of grabbing our attention, even if it involves distorting the truth, manufacturing outrage, and exploiting loneliness.[10]  In the process, they don’t just distract our attention: they degrade its quality. Think how hard it is to concentrate on a book after spending an hour or so on social media.[11] Recent research shows that even the sight of a switched off phone makes it harder to focus.[12] Given the vital importance of attention for forming memories, a system that is built on stealing and degrading our attention cannot make us smarter.

At this point, people might typically say, but what about the good uses of technology? What about the Khan Academys, the Duolingos, the Courseras? What about Andrew’s platform Cerego, which uses the science of learning to design educational content that really will stick in long-term memory? And I agree that these kinds of websites are fantastic. They give billions of people access to quality educational content at low or even no cost, which is amazing. We on this side of the house are absolutely not opposed to educational technology. I work for an ed tech company. In my previous jobs as an English teacher I was always experimenting with different methods of online learning. What we are opposed to are misconceptions like the one in the title of this debate, that you can just Google it. Or, as one Google executive said recently, ‘I don’t know why children are learning the quadratic equation. I don’t know why they can’t just ask Google for the answer.” (See footnote 2). And in fact, the reason we are so particularly opposed to misconceptions like this one is that such misconceptions damage good education technology. They make it harder for the really powerful and effective methods of education technology to fulfil their potential, because the really effective education technology is not about outsourcing memory, but about making the process of memorisation as effective, efficient and fun as possible.

Not only that, but good forms of education technology are also being damaged by the tech companies’ insatiable appetite for attention. Online education courses have a phenomenally high drop-out rate. One study from 2014 showed that just 13% of people who enrol on an online course complete it.[13] Why is this? Plenty of reasons have been put forward, but I would like to suggest that one important reason is that because these courses are delivered online, they are therefore competing with everything else that online has to offer – the instant social updates, the flash shopping discounts, the cat videos, Donald Trump’s twitter feed. It isn’t enough to create fantastic educational content for free.[14] In order for it to make people smarter, people have to pay attention to it. And large numbers of them simply aren’t.

Of course one could imagine a world in which technology was used to make us smarter. I would happily sketch for you the outlines of a world where technology did make us smarter.[15] The point is that that is not the world we currently live in. The technology we use prioritises entertainment, outrage, distraction and convenience ahead of learning. By and large, the big money in technology is not going towards helping children to learn their times tables in the most efficient and fun way possible. It is going towards encouraging children to take another selfie, and to forget about the times tables because there’s a robot who will do it for them.

Seneca concluded his story of the Roman merchant with the following moral: “A sound mind can neither be bought nor borrowed.”[16] I would add the following modern updating. “A sound mind can neither be bought, nor borrowed, nor outsourced to the cloud.” And until we recognise that truth, Google will continue to make us stupider.

[1] Seneca: letters from a Stoic. Ed. Campbell, Robin. Penguin, 1969, Letter XXVII

[2] Christodoulou, Daisy. Seven myths about education. Routledge, 2014, chapter 4. Seven Myths was published in 2014; plenty of similar claims have been made since then, including, for example, here by Jonathan Rochelle, Google’s director of education apps: “Referring to his own children, he said: “I cannot answer for them what they are going to do with the quadratic equation. I don’t know why they are learning it.” He added, “And I don’t know why they can’t ask Google for the answer if the answer is right there.”

[3] EG, see Frantz R. “Herbert Simon. Artificial intelligence as a framework for understanding intuition.” Journal of Economic Psychology 2003; 24: 265–277. Simon also wrote explicitly about education here: Anderson J. R., Reder L.M. and Simon H.A. Applications and misapplications of cognitive psychology to mathematics education. Texas Education Review 2000; 1: 29–49. I discuss this paper in my blog post here.

[4] EG see Wu, Tim. The attention merchants: The epic scramble to get inside our heads. Vintage, 2017, also Teixeira, Thales S. “The rising cost of consumer attention: why you should care, and what you can do about it.” (2014). Simon also commented on the economics of attention here: Simon, Herbert A. “Designing organizations for an information-rich world.” (1971): 37-72. “In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.”

[5] Cowan N. “The magical number 4 in short-term memory: A reconsideration of mental storage capacity.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 2001; 24: 87–114; Cowan N. Working Memory Capacity: Essays in Cognitive Psychology. Hove: Taylor and Francis, 2005. See also Miller G.A. “The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information.” Psychological Review 1956; 63: 81–97; More recently, Professor Daniel Willingham has written this New York Times article about this exact issue.

[6] Sweller J., van Merriënboer J.J.G. and Paas F.G.W.C. Cognitive architecture and instructional design. Educational Psychology Review 1998; 10: 251–296.

[7] Larkin, J., McDermott, J., Simon, D. P., & Simon, H. A. “Expert and novice performance in solving physics problems.” Science, 1980; 208(4450), 1335-1342, p.1335.

[8] Willingham D.T. Why Don’t Students Like School? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009, p. 53. William James also discusses attention in chapter 11 of The principles of psychology: ‘My experience is what I agree to attend to.’

[9] As Tristan Harris argues, the advertising model which underpins the modern technology economy means that companies ‘have an unbounded interest in getting more of people’s time on a screen’.

[10] See for example this article from the Guardian which investigates YouTube’s ‘Most Recommended’ algorithm and this on how Facebook uses information on users’ emotional states. See also Jean Twenge, in this article in the Atlantic and iGen: Why Today’s Super-connected Kids are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy–and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood–and what that Means for the Rest of Us. Simon and Schuster, 2017. “The more time teens spend looking at screens, the more likely they are to report symptoms of depression.” See also Tromholt, Morten. “The Facebook experiment: Quitting Facebook leads to higher levels of well-being.” Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking 19.11 (2016): 661-666.

[11] One small-scale study showed that undergraduates switch windows on their computers every 11 seconds on average. Yeykelis, Leo, James J. Cummings, and Byron Reeves. “The Fragmentation of Work, Entertainment, E-Mail, and News on a Personal Computer: Motivational Predictors of Switching Between Media Content.” Media Psychology (2017): 1-26.

[12] Ward, Adrian F., et al. “Brain drain: the mere presence of one’s own smartphone reduces available cognitive capacity.” Journal of the Association for Consumer Research 2.2 (2017): 140-154.

[13] Onah, Daniel FO, Jane Sinclair, and Russell Boyatt. “Dropout rates of massive open online courses: behavioural patterns.” EDULEARN14 proceedings (2014): 5825-5834.

[14] It should also be pointed out that whilst there is a lot of brilliant educational content on the internet, there are also a lot of educational claims made for websites, activities and games that are unlikely to lead to real learning. In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport points out the ‘absurdity of the now common idea that exposure to simplistic, consumer-facing products—especially in schools—somehow prepares people to succeed in a high-tech economy. Giving students iPads or allowing them to film homework assignments on YouTube prepares them for a high-tech economy about as much as playing with Hot Wheels would prepare them to thrive as auto mechanics.’ Newport also argues for the importance of attention, seeing uninterrupted ‘deep work’ as one of the main creators of value in the modern economy. Newport, Cal. Deep work: Rules for focused success in a distracted world. Hachette UK, 2016.

[15] For some suggestions, see the final chapter of my second book, Making Good Progress?: The future of Assessment for Learning. Oxford University Press, 2017.

[16] Seneca, ibid.