To rear our kids to be learners and thinkers requires skills well-beyond information retrieval. We as moderns with our high-powered phones often feel well-educated because the facts we need are so close by; mere seconds of typing and waiting separate us from knowing all sorts of truths. I have more than once replied to an innocent fact-wondering family member or friend who asked a simple question, with a flick of my phone-filled wrist and a caustic, “Is my Google better than yours?” From the Chronicle of Higher Ed yesterday,
When it comes to the materials of learning, we should impress upon students the importance of carrying these materials around in their own heads. Facts about the Civil War, scientific laws, poems by Emily Dickinson . . . these are not just items to retrieve when a situation calls for them. They are rightly part of a youth’s character and sensibility. The Gettysburg Address isn’t just a text on the syllabus to be invoked at test time. The cadences and assertions should be internalized forever.
The danger of Google is that it’s so convenient that it turns the materials of history, science, literature, art, and politics into information, not learning. In a Google-ized classroom, we lose the practice of education-as-formation. And the more we let search engines function in student work, the less we can expect that students will remember our instruction once the semester ends. — Google Memory
We have already left the abacus, the cubit, the slide rule and the butter churn behind. We have found efficiency in new things, and that’s ok. Today we have hard talk about what we must perhaps give up tomorrow (paper books, cursive, multiplication tables, spelling lists, fossil fuels!) and to educators, it hurts to say too much.
Technology is coming, and that’s ok. But tech is replacing our knowledge-level, utilitarian hardware. It cannot replace our logic or rhetoric skills that make us more fully human, or at least give us the opportunity to do so. Technology is primarily efficient, not beautiful (though it be shiny). Technology cannot instill virtuous childhood. A search engine cannot cultivate a child’s mind; it can only deliver the seeds.
A water wheel cannot grow crops, make bread or even grind wheat. It’s sole job was to receive product and deposit product. In so doing, it moved other parts. The water wheel did a great job doing what it was supposed to do. It was a great technological feat that saved lots of labor (though there were probably purists who continued to sell hand-threshed or oxen-ground wheat in the specialty stores). It came and went.
Our knowledge retrieval systems will come and go. 150 lb. encyclopedia sets came and now they are long gone. Google is here and will be replaced tomorrow with something better.
But let us not confuse these methods of retrieval with what they are not. They are not education, and an education that concerns itself primarily with facts and fact objectives and pounds towards its testing deadlines is missing the great bulk of what education truly is.