Monday, February 27, 2017

If You Can Google it, Why Teach it?

Have you heard that one yet? Maybe it sounds like a great mantra for 21st century learning. It certainly goes a long way toward making the majority of members in the teaching profession seem like dinosaurs. Sometimes, I think that's the point.

Why don't we give the question a little more honest consideration though? I've given it a try in a few disciplines and here's what I came up with.

"If you can google it, why teach it?"- World Language

This will save tons of money and relieve students of the burden of useless vocab and grammar lessons. All you need is an internet connection and you can translate anything. Just google translate and you can convert text and/or speech from one language to another. If you have a smart phone or tablet, you can just aim your camera at text or capture audio from the internal mic and get an instant translation. So why do we still spend so much time on languages?

"If you can google it, why teach it?"- The Arts

I posted some time ago about a student who developed quite a talent for making balloon animals. When I asked where he learned how to do it, he said ""youtube".  So, just look it up- "how do I make ceramics", "how do you play a trumpet", "whats the best paint to use for a realistic painting", etc. I bet they don't teach anything in the arts wing that a student couldn't find for themselves.

"If you can google it, why teach it?"- Geography

Reading maps? 20th century. Learning about place is just not necessary. GPS tracks us sometimes even if we don't want it to. Turn on location services and open google maps and you can find anything in the world.

I could imagine a common response to these points would be "we're not saying these subjects aren't important, but students need to go beyond memorizing and practicing rote and irrelevant material toward applying and integrating these disciplines into their work.

I agree, but the "why teach it" mentality is flawed and slightly dangerous. It isn't much different than saying "why learn it."

The language (vocabulary) and fundamental skills and knowledge of a discipline shape the way we understand the discipline and how it fits into our world. Maybe to play on an old metaphor, there's no such thing as a forest without trees; and usually lots of them.

Studies of the Himba tribe in Africa demonstrate that their ability to distinguish various shades of blue and green differ from Western Cultures largely because of the language they use for color words. Cultures that differ in their use of self-referencing directional words versus cardinal directional words show different abilities at movement and navigation. The nuances of verb tenses in languages shape the worldview of entire groups of people. These factors influence how people think.

Likewise, the basic information of a discipline, like latitude and longitude for example in geography , shapes the way we think about place, location, here and there. The vocabulary and basic skills lay a cognitive framework for building new knowledge and applying it to other contexts.

"If you can google it, why teach it?" assumes that knowledge out of context, quick and accessible is just as useful for the human mind as knowledge grounded in understanding and internalized through mental effort.

In the end, I think that those who are fond of this phrase would argue that they're just tired of the traditional "drill and kill" rote memorization and practice that supposedly characterizes modern education, but I think they're mistaken to assume that there is not a time or a place beneficial for students to just know something.

It's also just a provocative phrase. And I'm tired of shallow provocations. I think there are much better ways for educators to move forward together.


  1. Right on! Thanks for bring some balance and logic to the argument. -Tim

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