Are we smarter than a fifth grader?

A couple of months back, I caught an episode of U.S.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor on

A couple of months back, I caught an episode of U.S. gameshow Are You Smarter Than A 5th Grader. The show plays like a school quiz, where contestants are asked trivia questions and move up a progressive payout ladder for each question they answer correctly.

If the contestant is stumped by a question, the adult can seek help from a group of schoolkids who are aged approximately at the U.S. fifth-grade level, or 10 to 11 years old.

So, you figure the questions would be relatively simple since they're pitted against fifth graders, and those full-grown adult contestants would have no problems acing them? Think again.

The adults appeared baffled by questions like "what is five times two", "how many sides does a trapezoid have" and "what is the only continent that is also a country", leaving the fifth graders gaping in horror as they watched the adults falter.

But, I wonder, should we be surprised?

Today, almost every mobile phone has a calculator. Most of us use the spellcheck tool in our office productivity software, and for all the other questions we need answers to--there's Google and Wikipedia.

Back in school, I used to ace all my spelling tests and mental math tests. When I went grocery shopping with my parents, I would mentally add up the prices of every item in the cart as we stood in line at the cashier. The final sum I came up with would, more often than not, tally with the amount that showed up on the cash register...right down to the last cent.

These days, I can barely make it past item number two.

Before starting on this blog post, I turned off the spellcheck tool and typed out words like hierarchy...harassment...diarrhea...itinerary...prerogative...supersede...perseverance.

I turned spellcheck back on and, up to this point, found eight misspelled words in my blog.

I've grown so accustomed to spellcheck that I would intentionally leave an erroneous word in because I know the autocorrect function would immediately fix the error. As a result, I no longer take the trouble to learn words that I often misspell and instead, am often too willing to simply take a stab at guessing and letting spellcheck do the rest of the work.

Horror of horrors, Microsoft Word has made me dumb. But I doubt that I'm the only one who faces the same problem.

Today, it's just too easy to take out your mobile phone and calculate in seconds how much each of your friends would have to fork out after a go-Dutch dinner. It's also too easy to rely on Google to remind you which is the only continent that's also a country.

And I worry that while a fifth-grader may very well know the answers to those trivia questions today, they may not 10 years down the road, and long after they've left an environment in which learning--not technology enablement--is the primary objective.

In a previous post, I asked if technology has made us lazy. I now ask if technology has made us, erh, not so smart.


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