Can’t I Just Google This Instead?

I recently came across an NPR article entitled: “OK, Google, Where Did I Put My Thinking Cap?,” and it really got me thinking about my students.  You know, those teenagers who seem to have their mobile devices glued to their hands.  The same kids who grumble a little bit when I politely ask them to put their phones away, even though they claim that the phone is “just sitting on my desk, I’m not even looking at it!”  My response is always very similar, the basis of which includes (with a grin): “it can be distracting, and I want you to be able to think without it.  Don’t worry, your phone will be available to you in 40 minutes, I promise!”

This generation loves information more than they realize.  They are enamored with “Googling,” and can’t wait to look something up, even when they probably can, given some time, think about a response for themselves first.  This “instant access” to information is truly amazing, and has many benefits, including: being able to find history facts, movie times, weather/traffic updates, or looking up a rogue “factoid” just for fun, and very quickly.

However, does simple factual recall create better learners?  Instantaneous gratification is certainly a factor in hindering learning, at least from what I am witnessing in my classroom.  Could this be because students aren’t used to thinking things through without looking up an answer on the spot?  I’m concerned about our students’ memories, and their attitudes for learning without using the Internet or their mobile devices for help.  For example, after five minutes of discussing a topic, they can be quick to claim: “I don’t get it!” or “I didn’t know what to do” and want to give up because they don’t know the correct answer right away.  I encourage them in this way: “well, that makes sense.  We’ve only been discussing this for five minutes.  Let it sink in a bit.  Think about it some more.  It might take a few days, and that’s ok!”  I want them to know that it’s perfectly reasonable to not know the answer right away.  The old adage “patience is a virtue” is true, and I want my students to give themselves time and space to learn, rather than rush to answers that, without critical thinking, can be meaningless and quickly forgotten.

The below quote from the NPR article perfectly sums-up the concern I have for this instant access to information:

“A 2011 study in the journal Science showed that when people know they have future access to information, they tend to have a better memory of how and where to find the information — instead of recalling the information itself.  That phenomenon is similar to not remembering your friend’s birthday because you know you can find it on Facebook. When we know that we can access this information whenever we want, we are not motivated to remember it.”

To combat this resistance to taking time to learn, resourcefulness is important in my classroom.  While students are encouraged to look to their past notes for information (information that they curated themselves, rather than from the Internet!), we mostly spend time commenting on each other’s claims and responses, and also ask each other for advice on how to solve problems.  We discuss different methods of remembering facts, and other connections they can each make across our own mathematical units, different branches of mathematics, and other subjects in order to better recall information and synthesize different topics.  Usually, before I even begin a topic, I simply ask the class what they know.  In due time, students are brainstorming their preexisting knowledge of the topic, which usually puts everyone at ease, since they now have assurance that they know something, even before we start.  Learning is happening, and instead of turning towards “the screen” for answers, we turn towards ourselves.

So, the Internet and mobile devices are truly amazing for a variety of reasons, but I do believe we can live without them once in awhile.  Let’s try to think for ourselves, make our own connections, and have conversations about topics, rather than look to our screens for all the answers.  And if not very often, at least for 40 minutes a day in math class!

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