Thursday, January 21, 2010
Is Sherlock Holmes obsolete in the Google age?
During a recent class discussion about a Sherlock Holmes story ("Adventure of the Speckled Band") my students and I had read, it occurred to me that maybe Holmes would be out of work in the 21st century. After all, anything that he could possibly think of (in this case it was a "swamp adder" from India) could be googled. So I asked my class what they thought. The immediate response was that Holmes was obsolete. Google could take his place. All of his knowledge was available right there for quick and easy access. Why memorize when you can google it?
Then there was a pause.
They caught themselves and actually began to think about it. I could have stopped right then and called the entire class session a success. Heck, that might even be considered a successful week. But we did continue. It was time to press my luck and see where this thought was going. First one voice (you gotta love that one - the one you sometimes wait to call on until many others have had a turn), and then several more chimed in and realized that it would be highly unlikely to have thought of what to search for without prior knowledge. Holmes put the pieces together because the pieces were already there, in some form, for him to work with. He had studied and learned the material previously. Did this lead them to an "a-ha" moment and then did they succumb to the fact that they need to study every minute detail and learn it all, thus becoming scholars and making me a hero among my colleagues and a positive topic of conversation at parent cocktail parties? Not a chance.
What it did accomplish was to make me realize that there needs to be some content in memory before we can begin to process and work with it. I often hear the question "Why memorize when we can search the internet?" Was a similar question asked 30 years ago but modified to "open an encylopedia" instead? It seems that some content knowledge needs to work as a foundation. Brain research and recent studies in cognitive science support this as connections are made which are an essential part of the learning process. Sure the content and knowledge are going to change. They always have. What that content is will be up for debate for as long as there are schools. But do we stop learning about something because in 10 years we may see some things differently?
It seems that we can use these tools for research and information retrieval quite well and need to pass that on to our students. But I think the tools can be used far more effectively in helping us learn the content. Whatever process we created to help us learn the information in our notebooks or books may be recreated and/or improved using the available tools. Maybe then we can all be a 21st century Sherlock Holmes. It's certainly not something just "elementary" to strive for.