A few months back, I was chatting with an enthusiastic, web surfer about the state of education and how different it is today compared to the many moons ago when I was in school. I nearly flipped out though when I heard the comment:
Kids today don’t need to learn ….. they can just Google it!”
At first I thought I was hearing things, so I questioned for clarification. Initially my problem was with the little words – ‘need to’ and ‘can’. While I accept the sentence ‘Kids today don’t learn ….. they just Google it’ as being an oft times true if not sad state of affairs, I just couldn’t handle that this computer guru, a parent of young school children, was seriously thinking that googling information could replace learning!!
How could a parent today think like this? Why would you bother sending your children to school at all if this was your working assumption about the daily learning process? And more than anything else, is this kind of statement a reflection of the paucity of information we, the gurus of education, are sharing with the parents of the children we teach?
I admit to being stymied by this comment and it’s taken me a while to get a handle on how to respond. But, after some heated discussion and even more heated thinking, I’ve come up with the following thoughts, thoughts which strangely have tumbled out as lots of questions:
- Try replacing the word ‘Google’ with ‘look it up in books’. Books came before Google. Were books the panacea of all learning? Did the students of yesteryear ‘learn’ just by reading about it?
- Do answers to questions found on Google put knowledge into your head? Is the sum total of our knowledge just facts picked up and stuck together? If facts are just picked up at random by googling answers to questions, how does one ‘learn’ to associate facts in categories, let alone hierarchical categories?
- If we are to just rely on Google, how does a student know the direction in which to search? Does he guess? Does he randomly shift from one topic to another?
- How is it possible to know when enough is enough? How can a student judge or measure the depth of information retrieved on a Google search? How can it be determined whether one or twenty websites are sufficient to ensure all aspects of a subject or topic are learned?
- What about the authenticity or validity of websites googled? Can just googling guarantee the currency and accuracy of information? Are all websites snared on Google legitimate and reliable?
- Surely the very act of googling is dependent on prior knowledge. Isn’t knowledge a sum of information learned? Doesn’t that mean that learning is inherent to being able to ‘Google’?
- In the model of 21st Century learning, students are active learners. Is the process of running a Google search an active or passive activity? If, as suggested, kids no longer need to learn but can Google it, are they being active learners?
- Lots of information is retrieved from a Google search. It doesn’t necessarily provide explanation to an inquiring mind. How will this information be internalized?
- Are our minds just empty vessels waiting to be filled with facts? Has the sci-fi in which information is downloaded to our brains become a reality?
- Are a mass of facts equivalent to knowledge ….. to learning? Indeed, what is the meaning of learning and how best is learning achieved?!
Clearly Google has much to offer. It enables ready access to a massive store of information. But it is ….. just that. Information.
Students cannot be expected to make sense of all the information at their fingertips without the structure, guidance and expert advice offered by educators in our schools The completion of highly structured activities and exercises designed by teachers enable students to analyse and synthesize information retrieved by Google searches. This process, which ensures that facts are internalized, is the crux of education. It is our skilled teachers who provide a framework for learning. It is they who design and present learning experiences in logical sequences, ensuring that learning is achieved in a hierarchical order. Contriving opportunities for students to discuss, manipulate, experiment and explore sourced facts creates an environment conducive to learning. Providing instruction and direction, as well as inspiring in our students the joy of learning, is a major role of our teachers.
So what is the meaning of learning and how best is learning achieved?
Learning is the acquisition of knowledge and skill. Just knowing facts does not enable our doctors to perform intricate heart operations or develop new vaccines, nor does it enable our engineers to construct bridges, nor our architects to design buildings. Structured learning within the framework provided by our schools is the best way learning can be achieved.
NOTE: An adapted version of this post was subsequently published in Connections, a Newsletter for School Library Staff (Issue 78, 2011)