Search is the most important academic subject today

When my sons tell people we homeschool, invariably someone asks, “Oh, how do you learn math?”

The last time an adult asked this question, my son said, “I can just google it. Look. ‘Siri what’s seven times eight?'”

We’ve been homeschooling and using online search long enough that I’ve had plenty of time to ponder questions like, “Is it cheating to google Henry VIII to find out which wives he killed?” And I can say now that it’s clear to me that teachers should start failing any kid who using their memory to find facts instead of looking them up online.

Maybe you find that idea appalling, just like the adult did when my son answered about math. Just like ’70s parents, when kids took calculators to school. But at some point kids who don’t use the Internet to find as many answers as possible are not just Luddites, but bores.

So instead of wasting years teaching kids to memorize answers, why not move on to teaching kids to ask better questions? Because that’s what searching is, ultimately:  learning to phrase a smart question.

A recent South Park episode shows how kids have to be great at telling an ad from news—it’s a learned skill. And Andrew Badr created fun stickers that remind us how much of our world is ranked and sorted for easier search.

Badr’s stickers make light of how we are developing a visual language tailored specifically to hunt for what is popular, what is relevant, what is meaningful. This new language is essential in the Information Age.

Information is coming at us too quickly to memorize it. Instead we need to know how to sort and sift information. It makes perfect sense that my son uses Siri to convert centimeters to inches because the next question will be, “Why do we still have inches?” And then a harder thing to google is what might be a solution?

Honestly, I’m not that great at online research. Among my friends, the best searchers is Melissa because she searches stuff all the time. She asks questions all the time.

The answers are all there right in front of us, but not if we don’t know how to ask the right question. Which is why learning to ask questions is more valuable than learning to give answers. It’s difficult to form a great question.

And asking the right questions is one of the most underrated skills of adult life. So let your kids use the Internet for answering questions. They’ll get great at searching, and all those good questions and answers will open up the world to them in a way that memorizing cannot.

35 replies
  1. MichaelG
    MichaelG says:

    “Information is too quickly to memorize it.” There needs to be another word in there somewhere…

    Also, you really do need to be somewhat numerate if you are going to have a BS filter for things you read in the news. And have some idea of history, geography, etc. There is a base of real world knowledge you should have. Without it, you have no “common sense” idea of how the world works.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Thanks. I’m adding a word. But it’s almost like a poem, or a metaphor or something. Because my idea came so fast that I didn’t have time to get the words down on the page.


    • john clark
      john clark says:

      “Information is too quickly to memorize it.” is my new battle cry. I am going to use it as a header for my resume

      Numeracy is overrated and common sense comes in many forms. I didn’t know why we have inches until I was a carpenter for ten years . Turns out you can divide 2.5 meters by five and (sort of) two but you can divide eight feet by 48, 32, 24, 16, 12, 8, 6, 4, 3 and 2. There’s no solution to inches, inches ARE the solution, but who cares if you’re not a carpenter? After I was a carpenter for ten years I figured out that the highest-paid carpenters make less than the lowest-paid technology workers, too bad they weren’t teaching that at the elite high school from which I failed to graduate

      • redrock
        redrock says:

        searching is great – but nothing beats the speed of being able to do unit conversions in your head or simple multiplications. Also, the questions I need to ask to find something on google are different from the deep questions to ask about a topic, although I find this distinction rather interesting to ponder.

        P.S. I am a staunch supporter of the metric system – a wrench with a size of 7/8th is a pretty cumbersome unit, and our technician keep telling me that precision is easier to achieve using metrics over the english units. Multiplication by ten is also a lot easier then 12 or whatever is needed in the english system (don’t get me started with yard and feet and miles). There are two other countries in the world who still use only the english system (Burma and Liberia). I admit that carpentry is an exception in terms of english units coming in handy.

      • Stabat Mater
        Stabat Mater says:

        But carpentry is far more edifyies the mind, body, and soul. And US units of measurement seems a bit more like music than the metric system.

        • Stabat Mater
          Stabat Mater says:

          But carpentry far more edifyies the mind, body, and soul. And US units of measurement seems a bit more like music than the metric system.

        • Redrock
          Redrock says:

          Well…. Carpentry is done everywhere in the world so it will not have less soul and spirit if done in countries with the metric system.

      • G.D.
        G.D. says:

        You can divide 250 cm (2.5 m) without remainder by 125, 50, 25, 10, 5 and 2, not only by 5 and 2 – but why did you use 250 cm as a starting point when you could use 240 cm (2.4 m, a round value closer to 8 ft) which can be divided by 120, 80, 60, 48, 40, 30, 24, 20, 16, 15, 12, 10, 8, 6, 5, 4, 3 and 2? Things are not sold in feet in countries where the metric system is used, so there’s no reason for carpenters to use “8 feet of something” as the starting point here; they can simply buy and measure things in cm, and that’s what they do.

    • Daniel Baskin
      Daniel Baskin says:

      Yes, but enveloping oneself headlong into important questions exposes you to recurring factual info. Your brain is already wired for the most recurring info to automatically rub off on you.

  2. Kate
    Kate says:

    I completely agree. Is asking good questions tied to a MB personality type? We use Alexa. It’s entertaining for us and it helps me learn how to ask good questions. It’s like Suri but it’s a standalone that you put in your house. And you talk to it.

  3. Sandra
    Sandra says:

    I agree to a certain extent, but doesn’t someone need to actually know the answer (or how to determine the answer) in order to put it out there on the Internet?

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      As we find new answers to new questions they are published as news. And old news is published in history books. So answers are sort of commodified. Which means the only thing individuals need to come up with is new synthesis of the news and fresh looks at old facts.


  4. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    30 years ago when I studied mathematics at engineering school I was always uber frustrated with requirements that I memorize methods and formulas and stuff. What mathematician is EVER in a situation where they don’t have time to look it up? And this was before the Web, before search. There was always time to go find the right book and look it up and plug it in.

    • MichaelG
      MichaelG says:

      You need to know something about a subject just to know what you can do. Saying you don’t need formulas (or don’t even need much math) is like saying you don’t need tools. Even if there were some magic 3d printer that could make any tool on demand, you’d still need to know what kind of tool you wanted for a particular project.

      • Jim Grey
        Jim Grey says:

        I didn’t say I didn’t need formulas. I said I didn’t need them cluttering up my head when I could go look them up. I wanted to focus more on concept and process and let details like formulas rest on the printed page, ready for me to go get them and use them when concept and process demanded it.

        • Rayne of Terror
          Rayne of Terror says:

          In law school, only professors who actually practiced law let us have open book exams because in real law practice you’ll never have all the information in your head.

  5. Caitlin
    Caitlin says:

    The trade off here is interesting. Like, asking “what motivated Henry VIII” is more interesting than knowing the names of his wives….but you have to know enough about his wives in order to ask meaningful questions about him. Maybe google allows for that, and memorization is overkill…. But memorizing adds so much flavor to every day perspective and experience, and how do you quantify that?

    “Divorced, Beheaded, Died, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived.”

      • MBL
        MBL says:

        I can’t hear that line without the completion from Dave Brown’s (boyinaband) awesome video Don’t Stay in School.

        “Divorced beheaded died, divorced beheaded survived
        glad that’s in my head instead of financial advice”

        This part also seems applicable to this topic:

        “not taught how to budget and disburse my earnings
        I was too busy rehearsing cursive.
        Didn’t learn how much it costs to raise a kid or what an affidavit is
        but I spent days on what the quadratic equation is

        negative b plus or minus the square root of b squared
        minus 4ac over 2a
        That’s insane, that’s absolutely insane.
        They made me learn that over basic first aid”

        The best part, I think, is that he has a degree in physics.

  6. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I found it ironic that I had to turn off my adblock extension on my browser to view the South Park episode. I had to watch a couple of ads prior to watching a show which shows how kids have to be great at telling an ad from news.
    Also I think it’s helpful for kids to become adept at being able to perform searches in the library. There’s still a lot of resources that haven’t been digitized or aren’t available on the Internet. I discovered there’s also many other places where searches have to be performed when doing genealogy research such as churches, cemeteries, historical societies, etc. and asking questions of other family members.

    • Mark W.
      Mark W. says:

      I’d also like to add the idea of socratic questioning that is especially relevant to in-depth questions that require critical thinking. There are nine types (originally six) of socratic questioning. There’s a wikipedia article on socratic questioning as well as numerous other sources including books on the subject.

  7. Blackwalnut
    Blackwalnut says:

    I hope that searching for ‘seven times eight’ was just hyperbole. How will your son do algebra or trigonometry if he has to search for every step involving arithmetic? Why can’t you memorize AND learn to do good searches? Why are they mutually exclusive?

  8. Jenna
    Jenna says:

    I agree that searching skills are crucial, but the ability to memorize is also a useful skill. For example, when first learning a new language, straight-up memorization is key! Only then does it become possible to improve. Additionally, as an immunologist, having memorized the basics makes it much easier (not to mentioned faster) to expand upon that knowledge. Imagine if I had to look up key words every time I wanted to understand a new paper?! Or to discuss something outside of my direct area of expertise with a colleague? So I agree partly with what you’re saying, P, but don’t forget that memorization is also a skill (that is in fact different from “learning”)!

  9. Mandy
    Mandy says:

    I have homeschooled my two children for the past five years. We decided to educate our kids through literature not texts. We have found the Internet helpful in researching addition information when needed. However, I haven’t encouraged using Suri as a first source. I see that they ask the question, get the answer, and rarely retain it. In the age of information overload I ponder where the wisdom has gone? Quantity not quality. Yes, I can look up an answer to my sons math question and use the photo math app to even do it for me. I have done it, but what did we learn? How did our brain expand? I actually started taking Kumon alongside my children this year to see if there is a benefit to their theory on education. From first hand experience I see myself becoming sharper, not just in math. I’m thinking faster, because now I just KNOW the information and don’t have to look it up every time.

  10. cindy Allen
    cindy Allen says:

    This is interesting. I can see both sides of this. I agree, being taught to memorize a whole bunch of processes and facts seems like a ridiculous waste of time and effort. But, how then does basic knowledge get absorbed? How do you achieve a baseline of knowledge on which to draw? How do you get to a place of asking interesting and relevant questions (that have not been asked and answered before) unless you are building a store of knowledge?

    I had years of art history in college; slide after slide after slide….we had to memorize and study the artist, the year, the nuances of each period, etc…..OMG, ridiculous, right? But, somehow it stuck. I just “know” art. It’s there, in my head. I can pull the information up at will along with color theory, technique, etc… I’m using art as an example, but I have so many areas of knowledge that are just like that. It’s just “there”, in my head because at some point I memorized a lot of it.

    The other day I showed my son, an engineering student, my new polarized sunglasses. He grabbed them and held them over the scientific calculator he happened to have in his hand at the moment (who walks around like that?) and said, “Light waves travel in a circle (paraphrasing). Polarizing goes in one direction. When you hold your sunglasses over a screen like this (holding them over the screen of his calculator) you can see through them, right? But if you turn the glasses 90 degrees, it blacks out the screen. (try it guys, it’s amazing) That’s why when people are at gas pumps and think the screen isn’t working, it’s because they are wearing polarized sunglasses….They are blocking out half of the light waves.” (I’m paraphrasing, I’m not an engineering major…)

    He just had that information in his head. He didn’t have to look it up first. How did it get there? He has reached a high level of understanding about how the world works, because of all the math and physics he’s taken. It’s just “there”, in his head. He always says to me, “We are standing on the shoulders of giants.” He is referring to all the physicists and scientists who have come before him.

    He studies their work, and has a lot in his head. I can’t help but think this is not a waste of his brain power. He just “knows” a lot of stuff and can weed through information that doesn’t fit with what he understands about how the world works.

    Btw, at this point in his education, he’s reached the highest levels of math offered. He isn’t required to memorize all of the formulas. But, he has to know which formulas to apply.

    Rote memorization does seem silly. But, it also seems as if it has it’s place.

  11. Cindy
    Cindy says:

    I just remembered something. When my son was in high school, his teachers had to force him to use his scientific calculator. He prided himself on doing all calculations in his head. They had to convince him it would hold him back as he advanced. i get what you are saying.

    My boyfriend is a software engineer and agrees with you too. He said all he needs is to know where to get the information he needs. And, he became an expert in his area through repetition, not memorization. He uses what he needs.

  12. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    I am in the “not mutually exclusive” camp. Memorization is good and learning to search for answers to questions is also good. Forcing kids into rote memorization as a learning method in order to regurgitate answers on tests is an inauthentic way of learning. However, if one does something enough times, whether it be 2 or 3 or 10 eventually they memorize it and can recall it effortlessly later on. It is a byproduct of repetition. And, I am a fan of open book policies.

  13. sarah faulkner
    sarah faulkner says:

    This is interrsting. As I read the comments some are worried about common sense. But that is simply defined as what you see common sense as. One saw it as a basis for all knowldege, another for living real life. The second argument I read was showing examples of people who are passionate about a subject and why they benefit from memorizing. This whole subject is “subjective ” to the reader which shows just why our education system cannot figure out how to teach kids. The real queation is, “what do our kids need to know to be successful?” Which really can only be answered by each individual. Let the mathmatians memorize math, let the carpenters understand inches. But do either need to understand the textile industry? Why submit their minds to storing the basics of some one elses passion/job when it would be ‘wasted space ‘?

  14. Hannah
    Hannah says:

    Looking up facts is one thing, but people need to remember concepts. When I discuss an idea with someone of average or above average intelligence, I expect that the next time we need to make a decision that we won’t need to rehash that concept that we already discussed.

  15. Alexis
    Alexis says:

    What a wonderful way of discussing what academic librarians call “information literacy” – knowing when you need information, what to look for, where to find it, how to get it, and then how to use it.

    All explained very technically here:

    Working with college students at all levels, I spend the vast majority of my time helping students ask questions, not answer them. In the one-shot research classes I teach, I’m a bit of an oddball bc I spend so much time on deconstructing a google search result page vs. a library database page in hopes that they will truly understand the differences between all the sources available to them. I am astonished how few students really understand what they see in a results page.

    For the record, I will be homeschooling my sons this fall, in part because my husband and I (both in higher education, librarian and professor) work with the products of education (public and private) in America. We are not thrilled with the results.

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