Prisoners of The Blob

Toby Young has written a pamphlet ‘Prisoners of The Blob: Why most education experts are wrong about nearly everything.’ (Click on the image to download the document.)


I like this bit:

“Members of The Blob shouldn’t be thought of as bureaucrats fighting to defend their little patch. Rather, they’re evangelists for a quasi-religious cause, soldiers in a secular crusade that dates back to the Romantic Movement. Often, they don’t realise they’ve been enlisted in this campaign. They imagine that their educational ideas are just plain common sense, backed up by empirical evidence. Of course it’s a bad idea for children to learn Latin verbs – and here’s the ‘research’ to prove it! In this respect, they’re less like the red blancmange in The Blob and more like the innocent townsfolk who’ve been enslaved by the aliens in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” (p. 3)

Toby goes on to back up his common sense with research that proves it. I think my favourite bit is this section (pp. 15-17):

“Just Google It

Notwithstanding this, some progressives argue that any time spent on getting children to memorise facts is ‘pointless’ because if they need to retrieve a fact they can just Google it – it’s available at ‘the click of a mouse’, to quote Ian Livingstone.

‘Knowing things is hopelessly twentieth century,’ says the journalist Justin Webb (emphasis added). ‘The reason is that 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.’

Giles Coren, the restaurant critic of The Times (emphasis added), is even more adamant that all book-learning has been rendered redundant by Google:

What use is any learning at all in an Internet world? What use are books and the ability to read and understand and remember the contents of books when every fact in the world can be on hand in the blink of an eye, literally, right on your Google Glass? What is memory in 2013? What is knowledge?

Let’s gloss over the fact that a child without ‘the ability to read’ wouldn’t be able to decipher the information he or she retrieved. The trouble with thinking that Google can play the role of long-term memory is that it underestimates the amount of working memory we use when searching for something on a computer or an iPhone, thereby making it difficult to think at the same time. According to Daisy Christodoulou, author of Seven Myths about Education (2013):

We cannot rely on just looking it up, and we cannot outsource memory to Google. This is because we need those facts in our long-term memory to free up space in our working memory. Looking something up on Google uses up that space in our working memory and means we do not have that space available to process the new information or to combine it with other information.

A second problem with the ‘just Google it’ approach is that it neglects the amount of foreknowledge a child needs in order to perform an accurate search. The bottom line is you can only find the fact you’re looking for in a particular subject if you know quite a lot about that subject already. This was a point made by the journalist and broadcaster Libby Purves:

Search engines are fallible, despite their spooky air of omniscience: when you really know an obscure subject, you rapidly notice how shallow it is online. And searchers need to have an idea what they are looking for. 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.

Finally, even if a child at the Webb-Coren Academy (emphasis added) does manage to perform an accurate search, he or she won’t be able to understand the information retrieved without knowing something about the subject already (and that’s assuming they’ve been taught to read). 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.

In short, Google is no substitute for committing facts to your long-term memory.”


James Duggan

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