Why ‘just Google it’ doesn’t work

“Knowing things is hopelessly twentieth century,” says Justin Webb, a British TV journalist. “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.”

Google is no substitute for learning things by heart, argues Toby Young, founder of the West London Free School, in a Telegraph blog.

The less we know, the more we have to use working memory to search for information and make sense of it, he writes. Our working memory can run out of space.

The “just Google it” approach also neglects the knowledge a child needs to search accurately, Young writes.

“Searchers need to have an idea what they are looking for,” writes Libby Purves in a Times column.

A great paradox is that the pre-Internet generation may prove to be uniquely privileged, because having learnt facts once makes us diabolically efficient Internet searchers.

Even an accurate search is useless if the searcher doesn’t know enough to understand the information retrieved, Young writes.

For instance, if you Google “space station” the Wikipedia entry you pull up is only comprehensible if you already know a bit about “low Earth orbit”, “propulsion”, “research platforms”, etc. The child could perform further searches to plug these gaps, but the same problem will just recur, with him or her being condemned to carry on Googling for ever.

Knowledge is the power to learn  more.

“Research on the necessity of background knowledge for reading comprehension is decisive and uncontroversial” — and widely ignored, writes Mark Bauerlein.


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  1. Remember the Wiki Pacific Northwest tree octopus hoax of a few years ago? All the red flags were there, for those with background knowledge but a whole lot of people fell for it.

  2. People complain about manufacturing jobs going overseas leaving us with fewer means and people with the knowledge to ramp up manufacturing here again in the future. I imagine there’s a parallel here to outsourcing our working memory’s knowledge to Google.

  3. It is interesting that the debate seems to be between “learning things by heart”, i.e., rote memorization and not learning things at all or to any real extent. Neither position seems to bring in actual learning by teaching students how to study. More precisely how to bring in multiple sources, organize ideas, judge their soundness and general worth, or maintaining a tentative rather than fixed attitude toward knowledge. If the student is taught to develop their own opinion of the knowledge before incorporating the opinions of others, that goes a long way toward not only sorting through the plethora of sources available via the internet but also in incorporating the ideas into the student’s general understanding.

    Teaching students how to study, which is almost wholeheartedly neglected in education, is more important today than ever. Technology has made study far more accessible to students and rendered the summarization presented via few readily-accessible sources of past schooling antiquated and stunting.

  4. palisadesk says:

    “Googling” is exponentially more effective if the searcher has, not only some relevant background knowledge, but knowledge of the use of Boolean operators. I was amazed to learn none of my colleagues (that I know of) knew how to use these, and they are highly educated people.

  5. I’m 67 and I’m far better at google searches than any of my younger family members because I know where and how to start.

    • Richard Aubrey says:

      Right. If you already know some context, some connections, you can get far more out of a search.

  6. JaneC,

    There was a lengthy article here posted a while back called:

    No Math, No Job

    Where manufacturing companies in Washington State found that 90 percent of potential employees could not pass a 18 question, 30 minute test in basic math facts (calculator permitted) on things like:

    High school graduates applying for jobs at Tacoma’s General Plastics Manufacturing have to take a math test. The company makes foam products for the aerospace industry.

    Eighteen questions, 30 minutes, and using a calculator is OK.

    They are asked how to convert inches to feet, read a tape measure and find the density of a block of foam (mass divided by volume).

    One in 10 pass the math test. And it’s not just a problem at General Plastics.

    “Manufacturers are willing to train people about the specifics of their machines and technology,” said Linda Nguyen, CEO of Work Force Central, a partnership of government, business, education and community organizations that trains workers in Tacoma and surrounding Pierce County. “But they can’t afford to hire someone who needs to relearn basic math.”

    Manufacturing jobs today require a working knowledge of math facts (addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, percentages, and fractions), along with some basic algebra.

    They can’t afford to hire someone who needs to relearn basic math (no, it sounds like they never learned it in the first place, to me).