I’m really tired of seeing the following quote on the bottom of educator’s email signatures, or posted on web sites:
If students can Google the answers to our questions, it’s time we start changing our questions.
I cannot find a source for this quote. But like all pithy zingers, it’s a gross oversimplification. One has to have some basic knowledge and context to even form (or formalize) a question. So part of the purpose of education has to be building that foundational knowledge base so that critical thinking is possible.
There also seems to be another dimension to this: thinking from the perspective of a teacher, parent or other adult, rather than the perspective of the student. Just because I can figure out what terms to put into a search engine to unlock some fact from the deep reaches of the internet, that does not mean my children could do the same, even given more time. Or that they could make effective use of it when they found it. If the teacher can Google it, they should tell the student. That’s called … “teaching”. Having the students search for it themselves does not add value, or build real understanding.
So the article that triggered this rant is something I’ve expected or felt for a long time. It’s nice to see a lot more people have considered this problem. As the tagline on Salon indicates, “As search engines get better, we become lazier. We’re hooked on easy answers and undervalue asking good questions.” And as I said, asking a good – and effective – question is much harder than it seems.
A great question should launch a journey of exploration. Instant answers can leave us idling at base camp. When a question is given time to incubate, it can take us to places we hadn’t planned to visit. Left unanswered, it acts like a searchlight ranging across the landscape of different possibilities, the very consideration of which makes our thinking deeper and broader. Searching for an answer in a printed book is inefficient, and takes longer than in its digital counterpart. But while flicking through those pages your eye may alight on information that you didn’t even know you wanted to know.
There are tons of great quotes in the article by people more accomplished than me that back this up.
Say I tell you that on-base plus slugging is a better metric than batting average for a baseball player’s batting performance. Assuming your interested in baseball at all, whether you understand my claim depends on whether you have some basic knowledge of the rules and history of baseball, strategy in a baseball game, and a bit of grade-school statistics. If you don’t have that you can do some reading or other research. If you want to confirm or refute my statement, you’ll probably have to go beyond the scope of what I said to find new perspectives, opposing opinions, and deeper understanding. Or watch Moneyball, I suppose.
Or another example from the article:
To see what I mean, try memorizing the following string of fourteen digits in five seconds:
Hard, isn’t it? Virtually impossible. Now try memorizing this string of fourteen letters:
lucy in the sky with diamonds
This time, you barely needed a second. The contrast is so striking that it seems like a completely different problem, but fundamentally, it’s the same. The only difference is that one string of symbols triggers a set of associations with knowledge you have stored deep in your memory. Without thinking, you can group the letters into words, the words into a sentence you understand as grammatical — and the sentence is one you recognize as the title of a song by the Beatles. The knowledge you’ve gathered over years has made your brain’s central processing unit more powerful.
The point is that, even for trivial things, a simple yes/no answer or factoid is generally insufficient to either solve a real problem make a persuasive argument. It takes a base of fundamental knowledge, perhaps some advanced or specialized knowledge in your topic, and the understanding of how to expend that knowledge by asking good questions and doing research.
Wikipedia and Google are best treated as starting points rather than destinations, and we should recognize that human interaction will always play a vital role in fueling the quest for knowledge. After all, Google never says, “I don’t know — what do you think?”
Getting hooked on the crack of easy answers is hardly a path to success.
The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existence. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery each day. – Albert Einstein, 1955