Sunday 17 February 2019

Why learn facts if you can Google?

For many students, the internet has replaced the teacher as the fountain of all knowledge

Students are turning to computers to find out their historical facts. Picture posed
Students are turning to computers to find out their historical facts. Picture posed

Learning poetry, memorising historical dates and repeating Irish irregular verbs used to be considered the norm in classrooms, but increasingly this approach to education is being questioned.

Learning facts and figures is a waste of time for most school pupils because such information is readily available just a mouse click away, a leading commentator has claimed.

If pupils do not know the capital of Madagascar they can look it up on Google.

Don Tapscott, the influential author of Wikinomics and a prominent champion of the net generation, has sparked a debate in education circles by criticising the traditional approach where teachers talk and pupils listen.

"Teachers are no longer the fountain of knowledge; the internet is," said Tapscott.

He portrays the teacher who relays facts from the front of the class, while his or her pupils learn to regurgitate them, as more-or-less obsolete.

The existence of Google, Wikipedia and online libraries means that there is no useful place in school for old-fashioned rote learning, according to Tapscott. Why should young people spend hours learning that Michael Collins was shot dead in 1922 or that Naas is the county town of Kildare when they can simply look it up on a search engine?

Tapscott argues that a far better approach would be to teach children to think creatively so that they could learn to interpret and apply the knowledge available online.

"Kids should learn about history to understand the world and why things are the way they are. But they don't need to know all the dates.''

He said that if they wanted to know the date of a particular battle, they could look it up without memorising it.

Tapscott denies that his approach is anti-learning. He argues that the ability to learn new things is more important than ever "in a world where you have to process new information at lightning speed".

He said: "Children are going to have to reinvent their knowledge base multiple times. So, for them, memorising facts and figures is a waste of time."

Tapscott, who coined the term "the net generation" in his 1998 bestseller Growing Up Digital, bases his observations in his latest book, Grown Up Digital, on a study of nearly 8,000 people in 12 countries born between 1978 and 1994. His observations chime with a trend in Irish classrooms to cut back on traditional teaching and to personalise learning.

Moira Leyden, education and research officer with the ASTI, said the amount of rote learning that is actually happening in Irish schools is exaggerated.

"Increasingly it is recognised that teaching is not about a teacher filling pupils' heads with facts. Teachers are there to facilitate learning, and not just to mediate knowledge.''

Tapscott believes a lot of teachers are trying hard to change their teaching methods. However, he argues that huge class sizes make it difficult for teachers to move away from the lecture model, where students are isolated and cannot learn to think critically.

He said the model of education that prevails today in most classrooms was designed for the industrial age. "This might have been good for the mass production economy, but it doesn't deliver for the challenges of the digital economy, or for the 'net gen' mind," he said.

He suggested that the brains of young people today work differently from those of their parents. He said digital immersion, in which children may be texting while surfing the internet and listening to their MP3 player, can help them to develop critical thinking skills.

His views have not been universally welcomed.

While Tapscott has extolled the virtues of using new technology, another prominent US commentator, Mark Bauerlein, has blamed the internet for dumbing down an entire generation.

Bauerlein, Professor of English at Emory University in Atlanta, argued in a recent book The Dumbest Generation, that the internet was stupefying young Americans by turning out hyper-networked kids who can track each other's every move with ease but are largely ignorant of history, economics, culture and other subjects which he believes are prerequisites for meaningful civic participation.

In a recent debate with Tapscott on the BBC World Service, Professor Bauerlein dismissed the notion that school pupils did not have to learn facts.

He said students needed to have a solid base of knowledge.

He cited the US Bill of Rights, part of the US Constitution, as an example: "How can young people engage in critical thinking about rights unless they know what the Bill of Rights actually are?''

Clifford Brown, tutor in Information and Communications Technology at Hibernia College of Education, said rote learning was more prevalent at second level in Irish schools than in primary schools.

"We need to get away from the Victorian idea that teachers are the source of all knowledge. The dull approach to teaching where pupils learnt off dates is outmoded when they have the facts at their fingertips on a computer.''

Clifford Brown says new technology should be embraced in the classroom rather than shunned.

"Students will always have to learn skills such as reading and writing, but increasingly we need to use new technology to engage them.

"I would be encouraging the use of digital cameras, blogging, podcasting, animation and a whole variety of new tools in the classroom."Pupils should not just be using the internet as a source of information. They should be creating their own content,'' he added.

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