Do I need a teacher? – I have Google

We are very keen to hang onto the idea that what is taught and learned in schools (not necessarily the same things, of course) is important. A lot of contemporary educational debate, aware of the distorting impact of an over tested, over regulated, excessively bureaucratic school system, tends to undermine this. 

This issue is worth pursuing a little deeper with reference to Ian Gilbert’s entertaining book[1], in which he has a chapter called The Great Educational Lie. Following his account of joining in the national  debate on the curriculum, he writes:

“What did we recommend  as a result of our findings in the classroom? Grasping the opportunity to move away from the hegemony of content to a focus on skills and competences will contribute to increased commitment to learning if done well. ‘Whatever the subject I’m in, I’m developing skills and attitudes that will help me get a better job. Therefore, all lessons are important’ would be an important shift.

We’re not advocating content free lessons. The key will be to learn the content in a way that also develops the skills, attitudes and competences, something that the traditional chalk and talk lessons can’t do.” [p 20]

We could have chosen many passages such as this. For example, in the very next chapter we read:

In the good old days, knowledge was fixed. … But then two interesting and related things happened to knowledge. Like an egg in a microwave, it exploded and went everywhere. [p21]

This discourse needs unpacking. Let’s just throw out some questions. We have responded to each question in turn

  • Why is the tired old ‘chalk and talk’ image of teaching deployed?

Answer: because some kind of device is needed to rubbish subject knowledge – the writer has acknowledged the obvious fact that lessons cannot be ‘content free’. But this formulation suggests that the content is merely a vehicle for ‘developing skills and attitudes’. Nobody wants ‘chalk and talk’. But that doesn’t mean we need to dismiss knowledge as mere background, filling or context.

  • Why is knowledge spoken of as if it were material ‘stuff’, like the contents of an egg?

Answer: because some kind of device is needed to explode the myth of teachers as ‘sage’ and the fount of all knowledge. But nobody would propose a return to this model of teaching. Like ‘chalk and talk’ this is another straw man. On the other hand, that does not mean that teachers do not need to be knowledgeable and expert in their subject – not in order to ‘pass it on’ by drip feed, but to explore, use and apply with young people in order that their knowledge of the world and how it works is extended and deepened. This idea carries more moral seriousness than the image of scraping up bits of knowledge from where ever we can get them – like the content s of an egg off the inner wall of a microwave.

  • Why are we given the allusion of the ‘hegemony of content’, as if this were being controlled by some powers that be?

Answer: because the writer wants us to see school curriculum knowledge only in ‘traditional’ terms – as the knowledge of the powerful.  This allusion works if teachers are part of the plot. But teachers are themselves (potentially) agentive, as curriculum makers. It is true that the national curriculum has undermined this. It is true that examinations boards exert enormous power on what is taught. But teachers play the most important role in shaping the content: they need to be intellectually engaged with content questions. The problem with attacking ‘hegemony’ too carelessly is that it undermines this, suggesting that content doesn’t matter – in fact, that it is where we have been going wrong.

  • Why the link between skills and ‘better jobs’?

Answer: because this is one of the big ideas that underpins the book. The idea of education, as conducted by schools, has been totally merged with a utilitarian, economic function of preparing people for employment. There is a scientistic tone to the book, based on the findings of ‘brain science’, that focuses on learning faster and smarter in the context of a popular Shift Happens[3] type analysis of the priorities of education in a globalised world. Such is the power of this ideology that it is now hard to argue for a more liberal, enlightenment idea of education. And yet, human survival may depend on this.

Ian Gilbert kind of grudgingly accepts that teachers are important. He leaves it to the Any Questions Answered website to say: ’teachers express things in a way Google can’t. They can make dull subjects seem interesting whereas Google just supplies facts, not all of them correct.’ [p30]

Oh dear – ‘seem’ interesting? Again, are subjects just seen as inconvenient ‘content’?

We can develop a more serious grasp of teachers’ work and the contemporary purpose of subject disciplinary knowledge than this.


[1] Gilbert I (2010) Why do I need a teacher when I’ve got Google? Routledge. See also

[2] The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority was responsible for reforming the national curriculum in the early years of the 21st century, explicitly to reform a world class curriculum for the future. In 2010 the new Coalition government abolished the organisation in its ‘bonfire of the quangos’.

[3] From the wiki:

 ‘We want all children to be successful. We do not view the growing importance of India and China as negative but rather as additional opportunities for everyone in the world. We do not mean to gloss over the very real issues that countries such as India and China face, and we recognize that globalization and “flat world” factors have downsides just like other societal shifts. We prefer, however, to focus on the positive benefits and on doing what we can to help children learn and grow so that they may become successful digital, global citizens’


2 Responses to “Do I need a teacher? – I have Google”

  1. 1 Kevin Cooper September 26, 2010 at 10:37 pm

    Thought provoking as ever. Thank you.

  2. 2 Anestis Kokkinidis March 15, 2011 at 7:26 pm

    Google is not everything and this should be understood by the students. Teachers, with their zest to teach and to make their students aware of the social problems via geography, have the potential of being the ‘real players’.

    However, the national curricula (from any country’s perspective) can be regarded as restricting and stifling for them-and for the students as well. How the students can learn to be innovative and capable of addressing any social problems if they are currently learning within a curriculum that serves the interests of the powerful and sometimes can be regarded as ‘obsolete’? It is up to the teachers and to the ones who believe to their power, to change the curriculum.

    To sum up and return to the main question that this thought-provoking entry raises, my answer is: yes! I need a teacher. Please do not replace teachers with “Googles”!

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