Just Google it

If your flatmate asked for help in locating a green sweater that she had somehow misplaced, you’d be able to help her look for it in a genuinely useful way. You know what a sweater is, you know what green is, and you know where it’s likely to be, or at least, you know where it’s highly unlikely to be – it won’t fit into the butter dish, for example.

But what if she asked you to help find her almposh?* It’s a bit harder to help, as you don’t know what it is. Is it edible? Soft? Hard? Large? Small? Will it fit into an envelope? Could it have slipped down the drain? What colour is it? What does it do? How will you know you’ve found it, if you don’t know what it is?

You have good finding skills, but you lack the knowledge of what you’re meant to be finding. The only way to be sure, is to present every item to your flatmate, in the hope that it’s what she’s looking for. It’s going to be a long, frustrating search.

The debate around ‘Knowledge vs Skills’ has intensified since the publication of Daisy Christodoulou‘s book, Seven Myths About Education. It seems to have reached new depths with the declaration by a number of bloggers that although they favour skills, they are not anti-knowledge.

In schools, this manifests itself as a decision to either instruct pupils in facts, or to give them small clues in order that they research things, and find them out for themselves. In extreme cases, the small clues are absent, and the pupils must discover for themselves, given only a topic or title.

A number of bloggers have firmly stated that they are on the side of knowledge, that it is fundamental to a pupil’s ability make sensible use of the skills they have. Harry Webb has written an excellent post on the importance of knowledge as a foundation to all that a pupil finds out for himself. This, and the earlier post he mentions, make a very clear case for the need for knowledge in teaching. The skill of research alone will not be sufficient, if you don’t know what you’re looking for.

Visiting Blenheim Palace with some friends, I was struck by the relevance of this argument in the context of everyday life. During our post-lunch catch-up, one friend related a conversation she had with her teenage son about her impending visit. She had mentioned that she was meeting us in Woodstock, before going on to the palace. Her son looked confused and slightly alarmed, before saying “But aren’t you a bit old for a music festival?”

We laughed, but it made me think – how easy is it to make a mistake if you only have a few facts? Whilst it was amusing that a 13 year old thought his mother was too old for a music festival (presumably he’s no idea how old the Rolling Stones are then), it also showed that Googling can have its limitations. My friends son, interested to find out where she was going, had got as far as reading that Woodstock was a famous music festival. However, he hadn’t managed to discover that this was held in the sixties. I have no idea whether he actually used Google, but when my friend asked him how he’d heard of it, he did say that he had looked it up on the internet.

And what else could he have looked up, and got wrong? Blenheim Palace was the birthplace of Churchill. Put ‘Churchill’ into Google, and the first results you get are for a car insurance firm. If you’re not very knowledgeable, how far do you go before you realise you’ve made a mistake?

Sugata Mitra wrote a piece for the Observer (available on the Guardian website) in which he argues that teaching facts is outdated, due to the ready availability of sources of information, such as Google. He states that children’s ability to function in the workplace would be better assessed by an exam system which allowed collaborative working. That “The ability to find things out quickly and accurately would become the predominant skill.

But how do you do this if you lack the knowledge to discriminate between two different answers? And what happens when you’re under pressure to produce work that forms part of an exam?

The OCR level 2 Nationals in ICT (2010) included a task that all students had to complete, in order to show competence in using a search engine. The criteria state that students should:

Use a search engine and suitable search criteria to find information on the internet about the
costs of different options for the planned trip (eg transport options – train/boat/ferry/plane,
sightseeing possibilities/places of interest, evening activities in Paris etc).

The activity is centred around the premise that the candidate is planning a trip to Paris for a group of pupils and teachers. They must include all of the above criteria, and show where they have accessed the information, citing their sources.

One pupil had produced a fantastic piece of work, detailing all the available transport options, their associated timings and costs. She had also included a few pros and cons, in order that the reader could make an informed decision. Aiming for the higher level, she had also commented on the trustworthiness of each source, although this was often limited to “I used Google and found it on Wikipedia. This is a reliable source of information.” The transport options had been taken from the relevant travel company (such as the Eurostar website), and credited as such.

All of her work seemed relatively well-researched, even if a little limited. Until, that is, the section on sightseeing and evening activities in Paris. Here, the candidate had written:

You can go to The Eiffel Tower, that is like Blackpool Tower and built in 1887 and 1889. It has a restaurant at the top that is in Las Vegas. You can also go to the Louvre Museum. It is one of the biggest museum in the world. At night you can look at the Seine, it is a river with lights on. You can also see the Moulin Rouge, it is a 2001 musical with Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman. He was in Star Wars.

Faced with a range of options, the pupil had clearly decided to pick the ones she thought were right. Unfortunately, her lack of knowledge had let her down. There is indeed a restaurant called the Eiffel Tower Restaurant in Las Vegas. So far Google, so true. But her lack of geographical knowledge meant that she did not realise that Las Vegas is not in Paris. Moulin Rouge is the title of a 2001 film, and it may be possible to watch it in Paris today, but ignorance of the likelihood of watching a specific film being cited as something to do in the city meant that a further mistake was made.

Pope (Alexander, not the Pontiff) wrote:

A little learning is a dang’rous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
Fir’d at first sight with what the Muse imparts,
In fearless youth we tempt the heights of Arts,
While from the bounded level of our mind
Short views we take, nor see the lengths behind;
But more advanc’d, behold with strange surprise
New distant scenes of endless science rise!

With access to knowledge at our fingertips in the form of Google, it has never been more true. But despite this, even those first two lines are often misquoted.

In some respects, Sugata Mitra is correct, we can learn and teach ourselves simply by looking things up. But to do so puts us at risk of gaining misinformation, and in not knowing any background, we are unlikely to realise this, and are unable to correct it.

Pope said “And drinking largely sobers us again.” Without learning more, we cannot evaluate the reliability of what we have found out so far, but without a level of knowledge in the first place, we cannot begin to look for the things we need to find out. We’ll forever be stuck with whatever Google throws at us.

And who’s to say that popcorn doesn’t feature on the menu at the Moulin Rouge?

*I made this word up. Any suggestions for its meaning?

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17 Responses to Just Google it

  1. manyanaed says:

    I just Googled “almposh”. It said it was a made up word sometimes used in rather good blogs. It also said it is to be found under the table in the kitchen…

  2. Martin says:

    perhaps ‘almposh’ is a slightly condescending comment left on an educational blog by someone in a senior DFE position (or Old Andrew) that suggests both vague approval but also greater understanding. (and a link to their own blog?)

  3. sirpepmusic says:

    Only a small point but, in order to identify the almposh, you wouldn’t show her everything she owned. You would only need to show her things that you couldn’t identify. You wouldn’t take her a spoon, for example, as it is clearly a spoon; not an almposh.

    • That approach only works if you assume an almposh to be totally new thing that you haven’t come across before.
      It might, instead, be a regional slang word. In which case, everything in the house has the potential to be the right item.
      Without some background knowledge you wouldn’t know what you could exclude from the search.

      • Conuly says:

        To make it worse, almposh might be a subset of something else. It might be specifically a sweater that is made of cotton and doesn’t button all the way to the top, or a spoon that is a little smaller than a dessert spoon, but not as small as a tasting spoon for ice cream. So you might discount all spoons on the grounds that your friend uses the term “spoon”, not realizing that she doesn’t use the term the exact way you do.

  4. Phil H says:

    But the little illustration with which you start is complete drivel!
    “You have good finding skills, but you lack the knowledge of what you’re meant to be finding. The only way to be sure, is to present every item to your flatmate…”
    Actually, the only way to be sure is to ask your flatmate, “What’s an almposh?” and work from there.
    Perhaps you think I’m just picking at nits, when it was only supposed to be a funny illustration. But if your funny illustration makes no sense whatsoever, consider the possibility that the thing you’re trying to illustrate also makes no sense whatsoever.

    Both of your examples are no more than shock-horror Oh Noes! A child is ignorant! I certainly didn’t know there was a place called Woodstock near Blenheim Palace. I would have googled it, and I would have done it more competently than a 13 year old. Good – it’s part of my job! And the teenager who didn’t know basic geography? If she were really planning a trip to Paris, she would have asked someone and not made that error. Or it would have become apparent to her when she tried to book. So the test suffers from a problem common to all tests: it’s not the real world, and try as we might to make tests realistic, children will never work on tests like they work on real world problems. This fundamental feature of tests has no implications for Google-based learning whatsoever.

    Ultimately all of these complaints seem to boil down to Oh No The Children Aren’t Learning What I Learned. And this complaint has been made since time immemorial. It’s always been true; it’s never been a problem.

    • Phil,

      Thanks for your comment, it illustrates and supports my point perfectly.

      As Gardner has said, in the analogy the flatmate is the teacher, who won’t give you the information you need. Instead, you are expected to work it out for yourself.
      If this was a real situation, you would ask – you approach the person with the knowledge and ask them to teach it to you, so that you also have this knowledge. That’s what happens in traditional teaching.
      its also a model that is considered ‘dangerous’ or ‘inappropriate’ (depending on who the commentator is) by many people in modern education.
      Essentially, they don’t think children should have access to the same education model they naturally apply as adult learners. I find that odd.

      In the example about Woodstock you state that you didn’t know it existed, but that had you Googled it you would have done a better job than a 13 year old. I don’t doubt that for an instant. You’re an adult, with well-developed skills, a good depth of knowledge, and considerable experience of conducting your own research. It really isn’t surprising that you’re better at this than a child. Children are ignorant of much around them, mainly due to their age, which means they haven’t had the time to experience things and learn from them as adults do.

      So why are children expected to conduct their own research and dictate their own learning? If we accept that a child cannot do this as efficiently as an adult, why are teachers encouraged to promote this style of learning?

      Removing ‘chalk and talk’ results in ‘The Paris Trip’ mistakes. Insisting that someone with limited knowledge and limited skills be the one to shape their own education means that, very often, what they end up believing (through poor understanding of the information they find, and the lack of prior knowledge to edit those findings) is completely worthless, utterly false, and sometimes even damaging.

      If you feel ill, you go to a doctor for a diagnosis. You don’t sift through a medical dictionary or Google and hope to reach the right conclusion – you go straight to the expert. Why don’t we encourage that in education?

  5. gardner says:

    Phil H

    I think you’ve missed the point of the analogy. The point is the flatmate (teacher) won’t tell you – that would be chalky talky. The analogy is to point out how ridiculour ‘self-directed learning opportunities/independent research etc etc etc’ can be. Yes, you are absolutely right, it would be much easier, more effective and quicker if the pupil asked and the teacher told.

  6. Leon Cych says:

    It could also also conceivably be faster if it was thrown out for people to compare their knowledge in a group and call each other on it. Perhaps – you never know…

  7. Alexander R says:

    I entirely support a skills based curriculum; in fact, I have been developing a 21st century approach to teaching languages. In the past, teachers burdened students by having them memorize hundreds of specific vocabulary items. This approach suffered from two faults:
    1) It assumed that the words the students learned in school would still be in currency when they graduated, (90% of the words we use today didn’t exist 50 years ago). A student who learned French 30 years ago could not be to said to ‘know’ French today as ‘la toile mondiale’ had not been invented.
    2) It aimed at the impossible task of deciding exactly which words were worth knowing. This led to absurd situations in which a student could order ‘un cafe’ but would be clueless if offered ‘un frappucino au lait de soja’. (It may be possible in future to genetically engineer the human mind out of this conundrum. Futurologists call it the “How do you say X” hypothesis.)

    Clearly, as it is not possible to teach students every word in a foreign language they would ever need, it doesn’t make sense to teach them any specific words at all. Instead, we need to focus on giving them the skills they need to decipher a foreign language.

    I propose a three step transition from the current grad-grind, vocabulary memorization curriculum to a skills based 21st century curriculum.
    1) First, I propose a teaching only the grammar of the foreign language. If students in French class can parse a French phrase and identify nouns, verbs, adverbs,tense, mood, etc. then they can simply look up the actual meaning of the individual words in a French dictionary.
    2) Once the details have been worked out, we will then transition to a situation where only meta-language skills are taught in schools. This will involve teaching students how to analyse any language using the rules of Universal Grammar. This will mean that all language students will be fluent in all languages, as long as their internet connection is functioning.
    3) By this stage, Google Translate will have evolved to such perfection that we will no longer need to learn languages anymore.

  8. bigkid4 says:

    I fully support a knowledge based curriculum. In the past teachers have had pupils investigating and discovering things in Maths.

    This approach has suffered from several faults:

    1) Often the means by which pupils investigate or discover things are highly contrived and do not relate to real life at all. This renders the main reasons for doing it (preparing pupils for real life situations) rather invalid.
    2) Pupils are given so much support and scaffolding a long the way that the teacher is virtually telling them the answers. They are not discovering or investigating so much as waiting for the teacher to intervene and direct them what to discoer next with clues etc.
    3) This approach is far more time consuming in terms of planning, resourcing and teaching.

    I also fail to see how it is at all possible to teach mathematical knowledge without pupils picking up skills along the way. There are very few mathematical skills that do not require knowledge.
    When I teach my classes trigonometry I do so with the expectation that they also learn the skill of identifying which trigonometric identity is the correct one to use in any given task. I don’t see what the point of teaching them that skill without first teaching them some knowledge of trigonometry would be.

    The only skills I teach my pupils as a distinct entity to related to knowledge is how to work systematically and how to present their work.

    All other mathematical skills can, and in my opinion should, be taught through the vehicle of knowledge.

    The most important mathematical skill is the skill of knowing which bits of mathematical knowledge are the most useful ones to use in any given context. Pupild get more skilled in this the more knowledge and understanding they have.
    If they only have a hammer then they will try to solve every DIY problem by hitting it…
    Why would maths problems be any different?

  9. StealthJew says:

    Recently I’ve been working with my daughter through a small geography catechism of sorts. It needs rather a lot of updating in some parts (Alaska isn’t called “Russian North America anymore), but I still find the concept very useful for a seven-year-old — I give her the questions that she memorises the answers.

    Skills are useful, but so is a scaffolding of memorised information.

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