Is Google teaching us anything? — Exploring the concept of "knowledge nihilism"

In his book The Shallows, Nicholas Carr suggests that the internet is making us dumber. Carr finds that the vast amount of hyperlinked information available on the internet means that depth of knowledge has given way to shallowness. Casually disregarding the internet’s arguably most significant feature, Carr asserts “people who read linear text comprehend more, remember more, and learn more than those who read text peppered with links”. To Carr, the internet is a distraction from proper learning.

In the other extreme of this continuum, we have Sugata Mitra, to whom the internet conjures up revolutionary new ways to acquire knowledge. Controversially for many, Mitra claims that “people are adamant learning is not just looking at a Google page. But it is. Learning is looking at Google pages. What is wrong with that?” To Mitra, the internet is learning’s best hope.

Even though I personally disagree with Carr’s conclusions, I can recognise that there is some truth in his warning that the internet has changed the way we access and process information. As there is also some truth in Mitra’s rather uncontroversial claim that, given the right circumstances, children can learn by themselves. Neither Carr nor Mitra have the answer. They have an answer.

But the truth is that both Carr’s often myopic evaluation of the utility of the internet and Mitra’s hopelessly Panglossian vision of learning in the 21st century can be challenged easily, thus they become easy targets. Read this thoughtful critique of The Shallows by Jonah Lehrer in the New Your Times or this denunciation of Mitra’s work by EdTech entrepreneur Donald Clark.

Knowledge nihilism

In an excellent article Benjamin Riley, founder of Deans for Impact, explores the practical implications of scientific principles which we know contribute to improved teaching and learning. Towards the end of the article Riley takes a turn and cautions against “the growing danger posed by what I call knowledge nihilism”. Riley continues “the proponents of knowledge nihilism believe knowledge itself is overrated. In an era of proliferating technology that lets us access information at speeds unimaginable even a few years ago, they believe students no longer need to know facts or understand procedures. After all, why teach it when they can Google it?”

This caused me to pause for thought. Not about the practical application of scientific principles with the aim of improving pedagogy, but about the knowledge nihilists against whom we teachers were “the last line of defence”. In a brief Twitter conversation I suggested to Riley that perhaps he was overplaying the influence of knowledge nihilism and that his arguments were strong enough to stand on their own merit, without recourse to a defence from a largely imaginary adversary. Riley did not buy it and claimed that “the notion you need not learn googlable facts is widespread” and, unsurprisingly, Sugata Mitra was wheeled out as the epitome of knowledge nihilism, which is fair in a sense, given Mitra’s famous refrain “knowledge is obsolete”.

But how fair is it to suggest that the notion that Google negates knowledge acquisition is widespread? As a teacher of 13 years and experience in various schools, working alongside hundreds of teachers in both the state and the private sector, I have never come across a school or teacher for whom knowledge acquisition wasn’t the top priority.

Perhaps Riley is right and this belief is indeed widespread, as he claimed. Perhaps circumstances have sheltered me from this reality, so I decided to poll twitter on this question:

At the time of writing, over 1000 people had answered the poll and 89% (this may change as more people take the poll) of respondents had agreed that it was indeed still necessary to acquire knowledge and learn facts at school notwithstanding the existence of Google. You may criticise the poll as unscientific (it is!), the question as ambiguous or the choice presented as a false dichotomy because the respondent is presented with a binary choice and nothing in between. Nevertheless, assuming that all respondents are indeed teachers, the results show that the claim that knowledge nihilism is widespread seems like an exaggeration, at least among teachers.

Knowledge is absolute

The response to the poll was quite entertaining. What does he mean? I can’t believe he is asking that! What is his agenda? What kind of rubbish question is that? And quite understandably.

Tom Bennett, director of researchED and chair of the UK government behaviour group was appalled that a relatively small number respondents had answered “no, it isn’t necessary”. Perhaps a tad dramatically, Bennett told me “terrifyingly 13% (the poll results stated 13% at the time) actually do support teaching no facts. Think about that. That’s like doctors not healing”.

Others entertained a discussion about the role of Googling things up. Carl Hendrick, Head of Learning and Research at Wellington College suggested that “Google can be useless. Giving someone a German dictionary doesn’t mean they can speak German”. Nick Dennis, Deputy Head at Nottingham High School, was more optimistic about the role of technology in general and asked “how many have gone beyond what they knew because of the tech and organised events to discuss ideas as a result? How many academic papers have been shared as a result?”.

And finally there were those who, rightly, queried the polarised nature of the question. Yana Weinstein, co-founder of the very excellent Learning Scientists, remarked “I think it’s a continuum. Maybe [some] think knowledge is less important to acquire”. Weinstein is spot on. This is where the real debate is. Or at least where it ought to be.

Thankfully, I think, relatively few educators ascribe to the knowledge-is-obsolete-because-Google school of thought in its more extreme interpretation. The interesting thing to debate is not whether the internet renders learning stuff unnecessary, but how the internet impacts on learning. To take Hendrick’s dictionary analogy further, giving someone a German dictionary does not mean that they no longer need to learn German, but it does mean they can better learn German.

Does Google have value?

It seems to me that education is very much like owning a smartphone: you don’t realise you need one until you get one. But I’m not going to enter any controversy about what the purpose of education ought to be. This is not a question that science can answer. To answer that question we must interrogate our values. Although we may discuss and debate the finer points of how knowledge is best acquired, few of us would deny its value. As we discuss and debate the role of technology in education, I would like to think that we can move on to a debate in which technology is not presented as the opposite of learning. In my view, it is reasonable to find learning how to use technology to support further learning valuable, not because we don’t need to acquire knowledge anymore, but because we still do.

There are few true dichotomies in education. Most issues are debatable, equivocal and happily settle on the Aristotelian golden mean. But here there may be one true dichotomy: the internet either helps you learn or it doesn’t. Make your choice and teach children accordingly.

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  1. Thanks for this overview and discussion. I’ve personally stopped caring about arguments over whether technology (in general) is of benefit or not to learning (in general) and am now more interested in whether an individual person who chooses to teach is also consciously choosing what they do with technology, or if they’re just using it or not because of external pressures to be pro- or anti- tech. Concious and personal choice, whether that’s in favour or against, will always be more respected by students than watching any teacher follow any trend. Perhaps one day I’ll buy a smartphone 🙂

    1. Thanks, Leah. Your stance is very similar to our policy at school. My colleagues are free to choose when and if they wish to use technology or not. There is however and expectation that this decision is an informed one. Like you I don’t think that tech use is about trend setting or following, it’s about what works best in a specific context and set of circumstances. We should be as prepared to say no, tech doesn’t work here as to acknowledge yes, tech worked and made learning better.

  2. Thought-provoking article. In the era of Google, the focus should be, in my opinion, not on if we need or not to acquire knowledge, but on teaching students what to learn (filtering the “noise”) and, more importantly, how to learn (using the Internet as an ally, a tutor, an entertainer rather than a distraction).

    1. Thank you, Fred. I agree that the debate should not be about whether to use tech or not, but rather to what extent tech helps or hinders in specific circumstances. Like you, I think there is value in becoming better versed with using the internet for academic purposes.

  3. Whats interesting is that the debate over aquiring knowledge has little to do with education and more about what society perceives as educated. Decades ago, when information was hoarded within journals and encyclopedias, quick recall of factual information was inferred as intelligent and/or educated. Education reflected this trend, and assessments were cut and dry; either you knew or it or you didn’t. Over time, as problem solving and critical thinking became more important than factual memorization, perception has slowly shifted. In the last several years, Google (i.e. the Internet) has greatly accelerated this shift. The problem is that we, as a society, do not know how to deal with this.

    So the question that needs to be asked: What memorization is necessary? Does memorizing multiplication tables make math problem solving better? Does memorizing the bill of rights give better insight into government? Clearly this brings about a conundrum for schools… teach/assess memorization so that Googling has more meaning, or Google constantly and only teach/assess higher order skills. Until society gets a grip on technology and defines what it means “to know” something, this debate will just continue endlessly.

Your feedback and comments are very welcome