Students versus Watson, What is Worth Knowing?

I was sitting in a School Board meeting recently watching an interactive presentation by some middle school students and their school librarian.  They were showing our school trustees how the Battle of the Books competition worked.  Kids are given a list of books to read and then they are involved in a Jeopardy style competition to answer questions based on content from the books.  It seems like a great motivator to get kids reading and remembering.  I am a voracious reader myself so anything that motivates kids to read, in my opinion, is a good step.ChildrenThe students were in teams of three and lined up on either side of a table with their teacher-librarian playing the role of Alex Trebek asking the questions.  Each student had a bell to ring in with when they felt able to answer a question.  Two trustees were asked to be judges to determine which student / team rang in first for a given question. 

I was impressed with the speed at which the students were able to jump in with correct answers.  But as I sat there on a Tuesday night, the second night of IBM’s Watson appearing on Jeopardy to compete with the two “smartest” humans ever to win Jeopardy, I wondered…  If a computer can defeat humans in answering complex questions what kinds of questions are worth our time to immediately know the answer to?  We all know what happened with Watson, “he” soundly defeated the two human players.

Educators in British Columbia are wrestling with the definition or meaning of 21st Century and personalized learning.  Our government has strongly hinted at a reduced curriculum.  Less focus on covering content, more on uncovering content.  Less learning things just in case, more purposeful learning.  All students should have a “student learning plan”.  Project based, problem based, collaboration, communication, …  To cursive write or not to cursive write… These discussions are promising for sure.  But something I wonder about often if what today is worth knowing and why?

When I was a student, we had to memorize all sorts of facts and figures.  We weren’t allowed to use a calculator – we had to be able to rapidly do math in our heads and be able to work out all the steps from memory.  We had to memorize our times tables, learn our geography facts, and all sorts of facts about important historical figures and events.  I once could recite the capital cities of the Canadian provinces, not now…  I can’t tell you the first 10 Prime Ministers of Canada but I can probably find out using my phone.  Does that make me any less Canadian than the next person?  I can’t spell very well, it is rare that my written work has spelling mistakes.  I can’t cursive write but I can type 60 words a minute.  Do these deficiencies make me less literate or capable?  I’m not seeing it…  Technology has changed the game.

question markSo, as our education system transforms itself into something more relevant to this century, I think there are three fundamental questions:

  1. What should we keep?
  2. What should we tweak?
  3. What should we toss out?

Okay, I have other questions:

  • What structures need to go, how do we make the structures and processes more fit for students without making it too difficult for teachers? 
  • Could “bells” and “blocks” (vestibules from a factory past) be eliminated along with “subjects” and learning be all in context and blended?  Who does “Math” or “English” or “History” in their work or life?  Usually it is in context for some greater purpose.
  • What core knowledge is essential to instinctively know to be considered a literate intelligent capable citizen?
  • What does assessment need to look like and how should student progress be recorded and reported?  Does anyone seriously believe a “B” says how well a student progressed?  Grades are for parents to “think” they know how their kids are doing in school and for Universities to accept, deny, and sort students.  We should do better than this in this century…

I think the “power” of Watson will inevitably be in the palm of our hands one day, perhaps in five years.  The exponential growth of computing power, memory density, algorithmic complexity, with a iStock_000011819618XSmallshrinking physical dimension and cost will put this power into our slates, phones, other mobile devices.  Students entering school today in Kindergarten will have this power anytime, anywhere, all-the-time.  Inevitably, the devices will be more capable of “knowing” than what we’ve seen with Watson.  So, facing this future, I ask “what is worth knowing?” when answers, facts, figures, etc. will be in our pockets.  Teaching and testing facts, figures, etc. that machines can do faster and more accurately than us doesn’t seem to be a valuable option any longer.  We need to continuously differentiate ourselves from our machines, encourage true thinking, developing ideas, being creative, etc. and school of some form is an essential institution for making our future reality a successful one.  For fun, check out what school might be like in 2016 and 2020.


  1. Fantastically thought provoking and something that I am wrestling with right now too. I may be wrestling with it, but, based on recent discussions, some are not even contemplating it. Thanks for putting this out there.

  2. Greg - yes, I'm not reading alot from others answering this question. I think it's a fundamental question to ponder...

    thanks for stopping by - glad you found this helpful.


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