Are Our Students Really Doing Anything Wrong?

Yesterday I had the privilege of working with four students in a 7th Grade Study Skills class, a daily class for each of our special education students that enables them to either work on academic work from their course-load, or to practice skills that will help make them better students. My plan yesterday was two-fold: I was going to show them how to effectively search using Google, where to find the resources and external links in Wikipedia, and how to use Grokker (my new favorite student search engine), and I was going to observe how they interacted with the web when faced with research problems.

After I walked them through the basics of searching using quotations, plus signs and minus signs, and discussed with them the merits of Wikipedia, and more specifically how to begin their research there, I let them wander through their intended research. The projects they were working on involved searching out specific features of a country, like climate or current events or economy. What I noticed was the ease with which they accepted what they saw as fact. If the students landed on pages that contained bulleted points or lots of “facts” organized in a coherent manner they were highly likely to assume them as truth, without questioning the validity of the source.

I stopped them and asked them some questions:

Me: How do you know if a page is worth using for research?
Them: If it comes from a good source?
Me: What is good source?
Them: Google, CNN, anything that pops up on Wikipedia.

I’ve been reading the Macarthur Foundation’s Spotlight on Digital Media and Learning blog for the last few weeks and this quote from Alecia Marie Magnifico in response to student interviews after playing epistemic games for several weeks, struck me yesterday when I finally got to it. When asked about how they use the web:

They tell us about using web sources for school reports, for chatting, for playing games with their friends. They even report knowing that anyone with a webpage can publish opinions for the world to see. I wonder how much of this finding comes from the simple fact that young people don’t often need to check or even understand their sources: textbooks and teachers are the authorities, and they must be believed (even memorized!) in order to get good grades.

Bingo. They were looking for the right answers, not looking to authentically learn. Has that skill been neglected in our test-mandate society (wink)? When asked to complete the project at hand, finding out facts and delivering them, what better way to do so then to gather them from known, seemingly credible sources and give them back for validation.

My teachers are wonderful, dedicated individuals, which I am sure most districts throughout the country would say. Authentic learning is hard to do, let alone teach. How do I begin helping them restructure the way they affect student learning? How do we teach students to question what is given to them in the classroom by way of learned critique? Most teachers might see that as an invitation to disorder and chaos. But consider this, again from Magnifico’s post:

A teenager questioning commonly-held information would likely be perceived as antagonistic in many classrooms, although the same behavior would be rewarded for a researcher developing a new theory or a doctor treating a pernicious ailment. These divisions between school and working-world occupations have led several education theorists to label most classrooms as “inauthentic” – composed of facts to memorize and “test questions” to which teachers have set answers –
rather than “authentic” explorations of complex issues that may not have absolute solutions.

It’s this type of juxtaposition that has our teachers cast in a bad light. I cannot fault a teacher for being upset or hurt when told that their methods are out of date; I cannot hold them to the fire and tell them to change. What I can do is show them where their students are landing on traditional scales and measurements with regards to learning, not testing. It’s as basic as Bloom’s Taxonomy. Watching those students, with whom I had great conversations about what is good content and what is bad content, let me see just where we are and where we should head towards. It’s on us, and we need to adapt.

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