I hate the whole concept of Fox's television show, Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? Here's why...

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel thought it would be fun to have local teachers create a twenty-question quiz on stuff fifth-graders ought to know. Here are the questions from the quiz, each of which is hyperlinked to the Google search results for the question text:

  1. What is a hyperbole?
  2. Which chamber of the heart receives blood from the lungs?
  3. Is the equator a line of latitude or longitude?
  4. What is a mixed number?
  5. What organ in the body produces bile?
  6. What kind of a root is a carrot?
  7. Nomadic tribes of American Plains Indians lived in what structures?
  8. What did American Indians of the Northwest coast use to symbolize their clan and tell family stories?
  9. Which is larger: 3/5 or 5/8?
  10. What are the three branches of the United States government?
  11. What are the names of the five Great Lakes?
  12. How many hydrogen atoms are there in a molecule of water?
  13. "You are as strong as an ox." Is this statement a simile or metaphor?
  14. What part of speech is "after": An adverb, conjunction or preposition?
  15. Who invented peanut butter?
  16. How many pints are in 2 gallons?
  17. How many feet are in 9 yards?
  18. What part of speech describes a verb?
  19. What is a proper noun?
  20. What is something found on a plant cell that is not found on an animal cell?

Go ahead. I dare you to compare the Google search results to the quiz answers. For nearly every question, the first or second Google link has the correct answer. In most instances, you don't even need to click through to the actual web site. You can just read the short blurb for the link on the Google results page. [Also, note that question 14 is a trick question and that the teachers' answer to question 20 may be incorrect (I think it should say chloroplasts, not cytoplasm).]

So now we're not only spending all this time in school making kids memorize stuff that literally can be found in mere seconds, we're actually making game shows out of it (like we've always done) and framing it in such a way so that grown-ups feel stupid if they don't remember information that most adults never need to keep in their heads. Let's be honest here: when is the last time you really needed to know the names of all five Great Lakes, whether or not animal cells have cell walls, or who invented peanut butter?

I've blogged about this before. I know there is some core knowledge that we want all of our kids to know, both because we want them to be able to recall it even faster than the time it takes to search the Web and because it's part of our cultural / societal background and heritage. But as I said in my earlier post, I'm guessing that this body of knowledge is much less than we've traditionally believed because of the technology that is now available to us.

We used to have to memorize things because the only way we could store knowledge and information was in our heads. We passed that information down orally from generation to generation. Over time we learned to mark stone tablets, knot ropes, write on papyrus and then paper, and print books. With each technological progression, we needed to carry less factual information in our heads because it was available in other places and we could get it if we needed it. Our ability to store information digitally on hard drives, DVDs, and the Internet is just the latest transition, with a concurrent reduction of the need to carry around a bunch of disparate, disconnected facts that are irrelevant to our daily lives. There's a reason we don't make most individuals memorize the periodic table or the quadratic equation: they don't need that information most of the time and, if they do, they can find it pretty easily.

Am I smarter than a fifth grader? Yes, and it's not because I have memorized all of this stuff. It's because I'm an adult who can find the information that I need in mere seconds when I need it, critically consume information, and act upon information in professional, ethical, and productive ways. What do you want your fifth grader to be learning in school?

Further reading

[Update: I love this follow-up on the Journals of Journeys blog.]