“He who would learn to fly one day must first learn to stand and walk and run and climb and dance; one cannot fly into flying.” –  Friedrich Nietzsche

There was a time when if you wanted to research something you had to go to a library.  I can easily recall the hours of time I would spend at the local county library researching topics for school papers.  The library was probably the very first place my Mother and Father would allow me to stay by myself.  They would drop me off and I would find a corner or chair to call home for the next several hours.  And I would get to work, rifling through the card catalogue, browsing articles in reference materials and spinning my way through news articles on the microfiche machine.

My experience wasn’t unique.  If you were born before 1990 you probably had very similar experiences in middle and high school.  And while we may not have appreciated it at the time we were learning.  Learning to gather information from a variety of resources on a common topic, learning to distill that information into something new that we created … we were actually learning HOW to learn.

Since then the computer age has ushered in a whole new way to access the world’s information, and libraries have become symbols of antiquity.  No longer do you have to spend hours looking through reference indexes to find material, then read it to determine if it contains the necessary information you are looking for.  You no longer have to separate the unrelated material and refine your search.  No Google can do all of that for you in milliseconds.

Case in point, tonight I was “helping” Aiden with his homework.  I use quotes because as I look back I may not have truly been helping at all.

He is working on a chart for his 6th grade Science class discussing the phases of matter, their properties, as well as describing how the properties change during phase changes.  A project certainly worthy of a little research elbow grease.

But that’s isn’t how he completed it.  No instead he would formulate a series questions based on what he wanted to know and as I watched him, he entered each of his questions into the search box for Google.  Google would use it’s trillions of pages of stored information to locate what it thought was the most relevant answer and Aiden could read two or three sentences and then write down the answer he was looking for.

If for some reason he could not find the answer he needed, he would come over and ask his question to me, just as he had Google.  Before I realized I was being used the same way I use Siri, I would try help him by talking him through the answer but he wasn’t patient enough to not immediately get the answer.  And would start settling for whatever he could find on Google.  In most cases, I believe he got the correct answer but I’m not sure he learned anything accept the answers to potential trivia questions like “At what temperature does water evaporate?”

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Is using Google the equivalent of using a Calculator in Math Class?

Don’t get me wrong, I think Google is an amazing tool, but is it creating a bunch of kids who can find the answer to any question but not understand the WHY behind the answer?

As a parent, my research skills were embedded in me in an analog era and I have no idea how to help my sons use these tools to build good learning habits.  They know how to find the answers but can they truly research a question.  How do you balance using the power of modern tools like Google with the need to understand how it works and where it doesn’t?  We’ve had the discussion that “not everything you read on the internet is true.”  But to me that consideration falls short of helping to describe how and why to do better research online.

After he was done for the night, I grew very concerned about this dilemma and what it could mean for Aiden and our future:  if young people become the best consumers of information but produce little on their own.

I am very interested in your ideas about how you’ve addressed this with your kids or students.  Please consider sharing your insights in the comments below.

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