Are you smarter than a fifth grader?

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.]

35 Responses to “Are you smarter than a fifth grader?”

  1. I agree with you, though I do think it is good the show is on the air, and hopefully it will remain popular for at least a year or so. It raises awareness of these issues. We can use it as an example when making a case to others just as you have done here.

    The funny thing too is that we even train librarians this way, too, with their masters comp exams in which they have to memorize tons of terms, instead of testing them in context where they can find the answers (and finding info is the main thing a librarian is supposed to be good at).

  2. There is a critical flaw in this theory.

    The problem is that our working memory is extremely limited and we must rely on information stored in long term memory to expand the limits of our working memory. The only way to use long term memory is to memorize and think about what you’ve memorized to create the deep structure necessary to think abstractly. See many articles by Daniel Willingham and E.D. Hirsch on the need to know facts.

    A related problem is that you need to know quite a bit about a subject to make use of the information use find with Google.

    Ironically, those that already know a lot make the best use of the powerful search engines.

  3. I wonder what would happen if you asked people to identify only 3 of the 20 ideas worth teaching/learning/knowing?

  4. I am smarter than a fifth grader – I had better be!!!

  5. I think that the show is quite eye opening. The question is, are these questions important, such as ones on measurement. I would say yes, but why don’t we know these answers?

  6. Ken, thanks for the comment. I always appreciate when folks leave me commentary that stretches my thinking or challenges my assumptions.

    It’s not that I think facts are unimportant. As you note, many facts are quite important and allow us to be better thinkers. That said, I will stand by my belief that many of the facts we are now asking students to retain in their heads are completely irrelevant to their adult lives. For example, I’m quite convinced that I can look up who invented peanut butter any time I need to, without having any prior knowledge of the subject whatsoever, and find the correct answer. This is not a question about which I need to ever think abstractly or deeply. This is not a question for which I need to know ‘quite a bit about’ the topic to answer correctly. It’s simply a discrete historical factoid. Now, if you asked students today why they need to care about George Washington Carver, that’s a whole different matter (and a much more appropriate, higher-order question). But that’s not the case here. The teachers simply asked who invented peanut butter.

    And, similarly, most of the other questions on this list also are easily discernible without any deep thinking or prior knowledge. I want teachers to be asking (and students to be answering) deeper, richer, more complex questions that take full advantage of kids’ brain capacity, not simplistic recall questions that have no perceived present or future relevance and whose answers will quickly and accordingly be forgotten.

  7. I think the show is great, definitely good as an entertainment source. I would however think that it may present a negative attitude towards education, if students see that as adults we do not remember what we have learned in grade school they may believe that this information is irrelevant.

  8. Very interesting thread on epistemology.

    I can say if the show has any value, it is for its entertaining quality. Most of us working class types get a hearty laugh at the expense of a member of the well-to-do with pricey degrees, Mercedes cars and such. It would be equally amusing to have obese corporate CEOs pitted against professional judo instructors in no-holds-barred fighting contests. What we have in this case is an unwieldy and obtuse comparison of apples to oranges, which deserves as much serious consideration as does phrenology or the rap music industry. As usual Fox is delivering bread and circuses to dilute the poisonous misinformation embedded in the philosophical DNA of their more serious programming.

    I think it would reveal something if the young folks on the show were placed in the opposite lane, and asked adult questions such as how one would construct a cantilever bridge, handle a violent offender, counsel a narcotic addict, etc. Over time the adult mind must de-emphasize the knowledge of generalities in favour of the particulars of his/her occupation. I would rather a police officer be an expert in constitutional and criminal law than a Trivial Pursuit champion, just as I would expect a doctor to thoroughly understand biology but forgive him if he were a bit uninformed on baseball statistics or state capitals. As well, a fireman or an astrophysicist can be of contrasting value depending if they are in a quantum singularity or a burning house. Fifth grade educational factoids are not nearly as important as the activity of memorizing and comprehending them, which serves to condition the brain and enable it to process important particulars down the road.

    I have always disliked the word ‘smart’, which at best would be considered a hybrid term grafted between intelligence and knowledge, yet perhaps signifying neither. Some people are more intelligent than knowledgeable or vice-versa, and the value of either depends entirely on context. It is like that word ‘cool’ which in its colloquial usage has no defined value and is disconnected in its literal meaning from its context. Whereas ‘cool’ is subjective and not literal, so too is ‘smart.’ This is a game of reckless hypothetical assumptions which quickly degenerates into witless comedy, much like the current public educational systems in North America. Again, like our educational system, this show is more a sedative than a source of enlightenment.

    I posit that this TV show is a cute novelty, but ultimately constitutes a form of epistemological sophistry. I would add also that fifth grade teachers do not constitute the most intellectual members of our society and it is quite presumptuous for them to be judging intelligence in others. They do use ‘teacher’s editions’, after all, and are more experts in the art of watching and tolerating children than anything. The show is an indicator of what the medium of television has necrotized into, and why a person who respects the human intellect should avoid watching it except with a critical eye. I am unsure why I am even commenting on this topic, since I find the general cultural and intellectual ethos of American society more narcissistic and ignorant than any other society in recorded history. Why the television networks choose to question who is smarter than who in a nation full of such laughable imbeciles is totally beyond my imagination or comprehension. However, I confess that I do enjoy the guilty pleasure of mocking simpletons and finding humour in their quixotic foibles, and to that end I enjoy watching the show.

  9. I text message Google a few times a week for different information. I’ve told my students about tools like this, but it is against school policy to have cell phones at school. I know if I actually showed them (or had them try it out on their own) it would be when admins would walk through my classroom.

    I was once told a story about Albert Einstein (not sure if it’s true or not though) saying that he didn’t know his own phone number. When he was asked why he said “Why should I remember it? I can just look it up.”

  10. Interestingly, more and more, I come back to the thought that there’s really only one set of content that I think every American student should have committed to memory, and interestingly, it’s not anything currently tested.

    I think all American students need to know how their government works. It’s amazing to me how many people don’t have a fundamental understanding of our government and how it is structured.

    Want a high-stakes test for high school graduation? All students should have to sing the old “Schoolhouse Rock” government jingles, especially “How a Bill Becomes a Law.”

  11. Scott, I can’t say I disagree with anything in your comment. Some facts are critical, some facts can be left to google.

  12. Scott,
    You are right – we have to know some facts to build on. But our obsession with which facts are the “right” facts is harmful.

    By the way, seems like the adults on this show consistently prove that they are smarter than a 5th grader – they are getting paid to do this or they wouldn’t show up. 5th graders have to show up at school without the promise of a million dollar payday at day’s end.

  13. I agree with the ideas that we are quickly progressing into a world where facts are at our fingertips. Children/people need to learn how to use the facts. Additionally, we need to be teaching students how to problem solve, collaborate, and think abstractly, instead of memorize information that they can access easily.

  14. Right on the money. The trick is to decide which information needs to be memorized, and which needs to be ‘taught about’ so that it can be researched. As a 12-year old from NC recently showed us, some info is of extreme importance, in situations that don’t happen every day. (and look for all of the non-survival cultural references in the news piece!http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/17701966/).

    As Robert Heinlein said, “Specialization is for insects.” (http://www.elise.com/quotes/a/heinlein_specialization_is_for_insects.php )

  15. Thanks, Scott, for the comment to my own post regarding this subject which came in response to this post. And thank you for the link to my blog. The boys read through my post this morning before heading off to school and were perplexed. It lead for a good start-off conversation (as I don’t want to undermine education altogether but certainly want to put it into proper perspective as not all elements of what they’re learning are, in the grand scheme of things, irrelevant — or at least I’d like to think) which I’m quite certain will be discussed more in-depth this upcoming week while they’re on spring break. No doubt there’ll be a few follow-up posts afterwards. Thanks for the insight and the thoughts.

  16. Oh get over yourselves, it’s a television show. Yes, it is in our long term memory. Its all about fun. You are the type of people who are just miserable and don’t see the fun in anything.

  17. I love the kids and they love the show, you can tell. It is just to show us that our brain does not retain as much as we wish it did. When these Fifth Graders are old, bring them back and let’s see what they can answer. It’s a lighhearted, fun show to put a smile on your face, let’s face it, tv has gone down hill over the years and we need something to relax to, laugh with and feel good

  18. You are so stupid that you’re making fun of fifth graders???well if a pedestrian asked you wich way is east could you go to the nearest reasourse center??????????

  19. It’s a show, it’s funny, it’s fun to see if you know the answers. It’s not like everyone else is crying about how stupid they feel when they don’t know where walruses live or what an adverb is. If they are, then they don’t even have the maturity of a fifth grader, nevermind the brains.

  20. ok im in 6th grade and i would think i knew this all but its a kinda very hard we studied most of the questions in class but somehow i dont know what they are.{really wierd huh?]anyway its a great show and all but i fell stupid which is really cool. {I think} O well thx 4 the show its been great buh-bye!

  21. Sorry, I have to show off; I got them all right. However, I would like to tell you why. I was always interested in the specifics of everything, thus, I like memorizing facts. This does not mean that I will get ahead in life. Moreover, my obsession with facts has weighed me down; I cannot concentrate on anything else when I study. On the other hand, some of these things represent facets of our language that every literate adult should know (what is a hyperbole?).

  22. i think that the reason we don’t remember all the answers to these questions is that in what ever career you have chosen does not require you to have this information so it goes in like an out put in your brain but most of this is very useful knoweledge that we are teaching our children we may or may not use it in the future but its better to teach them it anyway just in case. for instance 2 children in the same class and grade one becomes a construction worker and the other majors in history the construction worker needs geometry and the history major may never use that information so does that mean we shouldn’t teach it? no not everyone benifits from every little detail in school that doesn’t mean we should eliminate stuff just because joe shmo doesn’t remember who the 21st president is

  23. Sarah, I’m arguing that almost NO ONE needs to remember who the 21st President is. The bottom line is that you can look him up in seconds so why carry it in your head? Books, and now the Internet, allow us to offload trivial and useless information and access it when/IF we need it. Why not spend school hours, which are both precious and few, on stuff that kids need rather than on information they might need ‘just in case?’ When, exactly, would be the ‘just in case’ moment when someone needs to know the 21st President?

  24. How do you become a contestant?

  25. I also agree with you and all of those questions are not things children in grade 5 know…

  26. I would think that if the basics that yes can be looked up quickly are not taught how does one find their identity in this big world.

    I agree with Priya that one retains more if they use it with there particular job. School is repetitive education, in that students learn information over and over as to be able to retain it for later.

    IMO Children need to learn all different facets of education in order to establish there niche in life.

    Ohh yeah, chill it is just for entertainment purposes.

  27. I think remembering these things, that may seem pointless as an adult, are actually VERY important. The actual FACTS themselves may not be that important to some, but you have to look at the big picture.It’s kind of like in The Karate Kid,waxing that stupid car for HOURS seemed irrelevant, at the time. BUT, it taught him disipline, and patience, which ARE relevant. It’s not that the teachers expect you to remember WHO invented peanut butter for the rest of your lives.They are teaching you about your history, while at the same time, testing your ability to comprehend what you read or are told.

  28. I was goig to right sumthin butt i can not spel.

    Im A frITing EXaMplE Of AmeRiCan Yooth….~~>>>

  29. The fact is, that the whole concept is, well to be quite frank, ridiculously stupid. It is unnerving to think that people over the age of 12 would actually watch the show.
    Let’s face it, people are getting stupider. How is it that so many reality shows have such a big following??? Simply due to the horrible truth that most people are of medium to low intellect. Most people do not want to think, and these are the kind of people that are the sheep in society. There are some of us left that still have a thirst for information and knowledge, but every day I see it. In the streets, at work, everywhere… most people have a low I.Q, and therefore feel fulfilled by viewing television shows broadcasted and developed specifically for low to medium range intellectuals.
    Captain Cook landed on what day? Who invented electricity? What dinosaur was notorious for its ability to fly? Irrelevant in society. Teach the children how to do their taxes, drive properly, be polite and use their minds. This is what lacks in society nowadays.
    A chimp can learn sign language, and children can remember pointless facts that have no relevance to their further education. If that is entertainment, god help us all.
    Let’s face it Australia, the real test is when they bring out the show “Are chimps smarter than the average man?” My answer… yes.

  30. I find that it demonstrates a sad state of affairs for education, but one that exists.

    While this information may be stuff was learned in 5th grade, many people don’t remember much of it.

    There are studies that show that most of what is taught in grade 4, 5, and 6 is forgotten by grade 7 & 8. (I’ve bookmarked at least one such study on delicious, however I am at school where delicious is BLOCKED, grrr, so I can not include it here)

    So while I agree, the show is silly, I think it points out some of the shortcomings of what/how learning is happening in our schools.

    Luckily we are also at a time where we are realizing more and more how to make learning meaningful for students and hopefully when our present students become adults the types of game shows around learning (if they exist) will be more relevant, at least for them :)

  31. “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader is Hilarious! It’s nominated best game show on People’s Choice!

    Vote for it on PCAvote.com guys!

  32. I have watched this programme a few times and am astonished at how stupid and ignorant the adult contestants are. These people seem to have had an education and yet don’t know what the country to the north of the USA is, the name of the ocean at the North Pole is, and so on. It is a depressing view of the American people, and I’m glad I don’t count myself among them. It does reinforce my view of Americans though.

  33. Why I’m smarter than most fifth graders

    A student raised his hand (no, really!) and asked, “What about animals on the Titanic. Were there any dogs?” It was ages ago that I’d read A Night to Remember and so I’d forgotten all but the most basic material.

  34. Hello Scott, I realize this blog was written many years ago but I was wondering if perhaps you could help me with something…

    Ive been trying to find an answer to a question with no success and I was hoping you could either answer it or steer me in the right direction. I’m trying to find out WHY THEY CHOSE FIFTH GRADERS for this game show? I’m helping a friend do research for his dissertation which is about fifth graders. Any help you can offer would be great. Thanks. and thanks for this enlightening blog.

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