If you’re old enough to remember the 1980s or you’re a Netflicks’ junkie, you probably know Cliff Clavin. Cliffy, a regular on the popular TV sitcom Cheers, always bellied up to the bar, grabbed a beer, and began spouting worthless tidbits of information. He’d cast out info about land-formations, animals, and what we’d return as if we were reincarnated. (I’d like to come back skinny and beautiful, but since life’s not fair, I’d probably return with six toes and a third… Well, we’ll just leave it at that.) Anyway, no matter how hard poor Cliffy tried to connect with the other patrons at the bar, he was always ridiculed for his uncanny ability to spout “crap”. No one ever considered how much research or reading he had to do in order to know and retain all of that useless information.
Well, Cheers ended over twenty years ago…back when most households owned an outdated set of encyclopedias and had to leave their house to go to the library to check out an actual book. Today, life is entirely different. The invention of the smartphone and tablet has turned us all into little walking and talking Cliff Clavins—with or without the beer. If we don’t know something, we look it up on the spot. Eight seconds and a few thumb taps and we have the answers to the world’s most trivial questions. We can even discover that the lyrics to songs we have sung incorrectly for years are not what we thought.
Proof from my husband:
Beatles—Get Back: “Jo Jo was a man who thought he was a woman.”
Bee Gees—More Than a Woman: “Norman’s a woman! Norman’s a woman to me.”
Madonna—Like a Virgin: “Like a virgin…touched for the forty-first time.”
Donna Summer—Hot Stuff: “Looking for some pasta, baby this evening. I want some pasta, baby tonight!”
Manfred Mann’s Earth Band–Blinded by the light: “Wrapped up like a douche, no more odor in the night.”
He’s sung those lyrics for nearly forty years. Now, however, when he sings stupid 70’s lyrics that seem to make no sense at all (which he does in nearly every song he sings), he says, “Hey, I’m gonna look that up.” But…even seeing the right words doesn’t help—his memory is shot and the next time the song plays on Sirius, he just sings them wrong again. When corrected, he says, “It’s not my fault! The guy who made the song wrote the wrong words!” Just call him Cliffy! He never thinks he’s wrong! But he is.
The smartphone has also benefited me when we play games to pass time in the car; he can no longer create imaginary musical groups called the Bulkheads or the Belch Boys. Nor can he create fake books like his every popular The Count of Monte Crisco (a cookbook written by the banker who created Crisco Shortening). Now, with just a few clicks, I can prove him wrong. (I can prove him wrong without a few clicks, but it’s more fun to rub my phone in his face.)
Okay, so now, let’s shift this same thinking back to our schools. Do we need to teach three-quarters of the information that shows up in a textbook—things like who won each battle of the Civil War or the difference between igneous and sedimentary rocks? Do we need to test the capitals of every country or commit to memory how many tablespoons are in half a cup? Come on people…facts are free! Students can find those facts in seconds with a click…click…click! If students understand the big concepts—the sequence of the wars, what causes conflict, what rocks are, etc…—then we have given them knowledge. If we teach them how to learn…not just fill their heads with facts they can find on their own, then we are amazing teachers. Because, seriously, who cares if my husband believes Norman’s a woman or if he’s looking for some pasta this evening? He can look that stuff up himself. The fact is, if he knows how to find the information, then I have taught him how to learn.
So, Mr. Clavin, had Cheers been popular just ten years later, you could have saved a lot of brain space simply by looking things up on your phone. It would have also given you more time to drink beer.