So I was in a teachers´ meeting the other day when someone brought up the question of which is the best dictionary? Which is the one you use and trust? And so I sat down listening in disbelief as the discussion centred around the Oxfords and Websters of the world.
It´s not that I have anything against those institutions that do a lot of great work, it´s that the conversation was exclusively about books, books made of paper. By the time they were talking about the importance of teaching kids how to look up a word in a dictionary (made of paper) I could bite my tongue no longer, my answer to the question which is the best dictionary is, the internet! And kids will be carrying the whole of the internet in their pockets! But what if they run out of battery I was told, they need to know how to use a dictionary.
Here´s the thing, I´m not saying we shouldn´t teach kids how to use books, I love books, nor am I saying that paper dictionaries no longer have a place or a use in our world. I´m not. My real problem is two fold; first, when we say the word dictionary we still immediately have an image of a book, not the internet. While for a younger generation, the digital natives, that might not be the case.
Second, even when it was acknowledged that the internet is useful, there is still this strong tendency to think that it is complimentary, that the true authority still resides in a book. The book comes first and then the internet might be allowed to play the supporting actor. Not only is it worrying that this is not an uncommon opinion amongst many school teachers, but that in this case particularly it came from people I tend to respect.
There is a frightening gap opening up if we don´t realise that the word dictionary no longer refers to a book in the minds of the new generation we´re supposed to be teaching. We are in a world of trouble if we dedicate all of our energy to teaching them the proper way of using a paper dictionary yet say very little about the proper way of using a search engine and the way to sort and evaluate the multitude of dictionaries and sources available on the net. But at the end of the day, dictionaries aren´t my biggest concern, the trouble is, take out the word dictionary and replace it with just about anything else we teach at schools around the world, and the same argument holds true.
Thinking about that reminded me of this video I saw few years ago. It´s no more than 4 or 5 years old and it´s already starting to be out of date, another sign of just how tremendously fast the pace of change is. Yet it is still makes for a great viewing presenting the two sides of the argument above but about Wikipedia and traditional paper encyclopaedias (I´ve just used Wikipedia to check the correct plural of encyclopaedia). It even brings to question the concept of truth itself. The worrying thing is that there are people that are taking awfully too long to realise that everything is changing, and then changing some more.