Posts Tagged google

Teach me how to Google?

Here’s what I realized today: my students don’t know how to use Google.

You might think that sounds crazy. Kids have grown up using Google. It’s second nature, right?

I don’t think so. I think that growing up in the information age may be having a perversely counterintuitive effect on them. Namely, they have no idea how to find information.

I took my frosh to the computer lab today to give them time to work on their essays on “The Cask of Amontillado.” They were armed with teacher-approved outlines and sample essays. I got them signed on to GoogleDocs and settled in for what I hoped would be an hour of frenzied typing with plenty of over-the-shoulder writing instruction.

Not so much. I did end up hopping around the room like a madman, giving plenty of instruction, but very little of it pertained to writing. Starting with the most frequently asked, these were the top questions of the day:

1. What was the name of the guy in the story?

2. How do you spell “catacombs”?

3. What’s Poe’s first name?

4. How does this sound so far?

Oh, how I wish question #4 were at the top of that list! That would have meant that I spent my day helping students articulate their ideas and clarify their writing. I love doing that! But instead, I spent my day responding to those other questions. Let’s look at them.

1. What was the name of the guy in the story?

I’m not even worried about the fact that they can’t remember these two names (the only two names – besides Luchesi – in the story). Who cares? And that’s exactly the point – there’s no reason to memorize the names of the characters because we can find them so easily! Or so I thought. To each kid that asked this, I told them to find out themselves. But how? We didn’t bring the textbooks down! Use the tools in front of you, I said. There are no tools in front of me! This actual exchange happened once, which caused me to mime ripping my hair out (I’m quite bald, so this always looks odd). I said, you have Google and the entire internet in front of you (you know, the most powerful tool in human history?).

After this exchange, I simply told each kid that asked this question to Google it. This instruction was usually met with a moment of hesitation. Some even asked, “How?”

Seriously. How do you google it. Can you imagine how difficult it was for me to hold back the tone of condescension in my voice when I explained, “Well, you type “cask of amontillado” into that Google search bar”? In fact, you don’t even have to do that. You can type “cask,” and Google will figure out the rest. Then you click on any 667,000 results that pop up 0.23 seconds later, and find the characters’ names in a plot summary or in the text itself.

2. How do you spell “catacombs”?

I often hear students cry out in distress, “How do I right-click?!” when in a Mac computer lab. It seems a lot of them rely on that technique for spell checking their Word documents at home. The fact that GoogleDocs doesn’t even let you control-click to find suggested corrections threw them into utter despair. “What do I do? I don’t know how to spell that?” Google it, I said, again. “But how – I don’t know how to spell it?” Just type a guess into Google, I said, trust me.

Again, with great trepidation, they’d begin to type their guess at the word into the Google search bar. Did you mean catacombs? “Oh look ,there it is.” Yup. Whaddaya know?

You can probably guess how question #3 went at this point, too.

So what does this mean? How is it that these students seem so unable to find out the simplest pieces of information? Is it laziness? Is it easier to wait with a raised hand or (who am I kidding) call out and try to get a teacher to give you a piece of information than to type it into Google yourself? Is it really possible they didn’t know that Google could help them?

To my generation, and to all those that came before me, the magical ease of Google may be due to the baseline we have for finding information. When you grew up having to walk/bike/get driven to a library, search card catalogs, follow the Dewey Decimal System, then search through the volume you finally find for an answer to your question, Google’s 0.23 second solution is incomprehensibly easy.

But when Google is your baseline, when you and your parents have always been able to find the answer to any question in an instant on your phone, maybe the act of typing the word in the search bar doesn’t seem so easy. Maybe it’s only natural to try the easier version first: asking the teacher.

I’m afraid, though, that the ease of finding right answers somehow leads to more indifference about making sure your answers are right. I hate to launch into a “kids these days” rant, but, for example, I Googled “dewey decimal system” a few moments ago just to make sure that I was right about the spelling and capitalization. I was pretty sure I was right, but since I only had to actually type in “dewe” before Google guessed what I wanted, and then it only took another 0.14 seconds for confirmation, it seemed worth it to me. And I know there will always be good students (like me) and less enthusiastic ones, but still, it’s troublesome how many “Cast of Amontilado” essays I’ve read over the past couple of years.

But why would ease of finding information lead to indifference? Is it the same reason that I’ve never been to the top of the Empire State Building? Growing up in New York, you know it’s always there, so why do it now? Growing up with Google, you know the answers are always there, so why find them now?

And whose job is it to teach kids how to Google? We 9th grade English teachers spend weeks teaching them how to navigate the SIRS and Gale databases to find scholarly articles, but that is starting to seem as sensible as teaching someone how to make a cheese soufflé instead of how to fry an egg.

I’m not mad at middle school teachers here, the way high school teachers sometimes get when our kids can’t write a sentence. I get it – we all thought they knew about Google! We see them manipulate their phones so dexterously, always texting their friends and using savvy-sounding abbreviations and even hashtags. And we think we’re on top of it with all of our 21st century learning goals and media literacy objectives.

But maybe we need to take a step backwards first. We’re all trying to make sure they become lifelong learners. It’d probably be good starting point, then, if they knew that the screen in front of them has the answers to pretty much every question. And it’s really not that hard to find them.

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Forgetting how good Google can be

I went through a phase – and I’m sure I’m not the only one – when I couldn’t help but try every new Ben & Jerry’s flavor as soon as I saw one. Graham cracker swirl and marshmallows? Gotta have that (so good). Peach cobbler? How could I not try it?

But those days are over. It was financial forces that killed that ongoing experiment, which could indeed be ongoing since they don’t seem to be slowing down with the new flavors (Schweddy Balls? Really?). The great thing about cutting those fancy pints out of my budget was that I was reintroduced to the  economical yet outstanding Breyer’s chocolate.

After tasting all those wacakdoo, cluster-filled flavors, regular chocolate ice cream still holds its own. It reminds me that I don’t really need anything else for dessert. Ever.

That’s what using plain ol’ Google was like for me today. I was reading Roald Dahl’s “Man From the South” to my 9th graders. I was guiding them through some note-taking on literary terms, so I had the projector hooked up to a Word document where I was modeling the notes. But that allowed for the quick researching of unknown words and references that may have given my students some invaluable, visual context.

Examples: The creepy old man who shows up at the hotel pool is “immaculately dressed in a white suit” and a “large creamy Panama hat.” Not one student knew what that looked like. So in 5 seconds, we were all able to see.

Since we were working on analyzing indirect characterization, this was incredibly helpful beyond the surface level of visualizing the character. When I prompted them for inferences we might make based on the description, one student offered that he seemed “suspicious’ because the wide brim of the had could be hiding his eyes.

We later learn that he is wearing “white buckskin shoes.” What are those? Here they are.

And his crocodile cigar case? That might have looked something like this:

And I think knowing what that looks like helps you realize just how utterly creepy of a character Dahl created here.

Pretty simple, but pretty powerful. Of course, I still feel like I have  to try that flavor with the fudge covered potato chip clusters, just like there are all kinds of things I’d love to do with iPads that I don’t have. But I’m about to serve myself a bowl of chocolate ice cream, and I have a feeling it’ll be pretty powerful, too.

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