Stand amongst friends and introduce an unfamiliar topic. It could be something as simple as, “Who designed the first airplane?” to something far more windingly complex like, “What does Einstein’s theory of relativity really mean?” And watch your peers throw postulating quips back and forth for a moment until the phrase “Google it” rolls off someone’s tongue. Watch one of your friends confidently, and a little too loudly, read Google’s first-page link. Then watch the glinting interest fade quickly and come to a mind-stopping halt as another friend proposes a new, more exciting topic.
It happens all the time. We have all been a part of this kind of conversation.
Doesn’t this concept of immediate informational gratification apply to education as well?
“Schools were built on the idea that if you wanted to learn algebra, then you’ve got to come to school to learn algebra, because it wasn’t easily accessible anywhere else […] If you have access to the Internet and if you have some literacy around that, you can pretty much learn just about whatever you want, whenever you want, wherever you are, with whomever you can find,” said Will Richardson, a prominent voice in the intersection between education and technology (cited by Ray Miller-Still in Changing How We Think About Education). And he’s right. Students no longer need to memorize multiplication tables or dates of important wars, they just need to know how to find that information. Despite this, most of the American education system has yet to see reactive changes to the new information-access age. “But when you walk into classrooms, what do you see? You see kids that have no choice, they have no freedom, they’re sitting in desks in rows, they’re waiting to be told what to learn, they’re being assessed on things that are not really that interesting or meaningful to them,” says Richardson.
Despite Richardson’s words, the advent of a system that answers 63,000 queries per second on any given day (according to SEO Tribunal) does not devalue the importance of school. Rather, it forces educators to shift priorities. “It has to be about developing them into competent, powerful, passionate learners who can go out and take advantage of all the access they have,” says Richardson. The key phrase here: passionate learners. The internet closes the information gap for most but leaves another door gaping open: students have to want to learn. This is where our schools can thrive.
Norman Longworth in his book, Lifelong Learning in Action Transforming Education in the 21st Century cites the need for a new “learning society”. In it, every person recognizes the possibilities limitless access to information has. Specifically, Longworth mentions The European Council of University Rectors’ booklet, “Creating the Learning Society” in which the authors discuss the potential issues with an over-informed society. It’s a world we are already all too familiar with; in it, people don’t read the entirety of a news article– just the headline, and they listen to sound bites of a White House press conference rather than listening to the whole thing. “It won’t create informed citizens with 21st-century skills,” says Longworth. Instead, these citizens need to learn how to learn.
The most effective way for students to learn how to learn is by granting them the autonomy to process information and come to a conclusion buttressed by information and reason. This form of learning often means decentralizing a classroom where teachers act as facilitators of knowledge rather than gatekeepers. Teachers place the tools necessary to decode complicated texts and glean principal ideas to come to their own conclusions in the student’s hands. Then, the critical thinking behavior becomes a muscle for the student rather than the responsibility of the teacher. And the behavior can be replicated over and over again across a multitude of subject matters and ideas.
There is something powerful about allowing students to take hold of their own autonomy. A study performed by Fredrick, Alfeld, and Eccles titled, Developing and Fostering Passion in Academic and Nonacademic Domains found that traditionally structured schools often did not see a great deal of passion for learning in their students. However, they found that self-motivation and engagement opportunities had a positive effect on passion in classes. Students are more motivated to learn and participate in classes “where students are given the opportunity to make real choices, with decisions based on effort and ability, and where they are given the opportunity to develop responsibility and independence.” These experiences help contextualize their experiences and provide a sense of meaning to their work. Implementing behaviors in which students are not only motivated to learn but also passionate about what they are learning can provide a framework that they can refer to for the rest of their lives.
Standing behind the principle of autonomy in classrooms is a psychological concept of self-efficacy. Scientist, S. Serap Kurbanoglu wrote her scientific research about the role of self-efficacy in lifelong learning titled, “Self-efficacy: a concept closely linked to information literacy and lifelong learning.” Kurbanoglu states, “Self-efficacy is a critical determinant of self-regulation that is a key component of lifelong learning.” In other words, students need to believe that they can perform a task with a positive outcome before they even begin. If schools are providing them a safe space to stick their hands in the mud, pull apart complicated texts, do something they’ve never done before with guidance from an educator, the risk of failure is a lot less intimidating. The more they do it, the better they are. The better they are, the more likely they are to do it again, increasing self-efficacy and passion for lifelong learning.
Our love for throwing any and all questions at Google is undoubtable. It’s fast and easy. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t some form of a learning opportunity in there, somewhere. As pillars of the education system for a generation focused on immediacy, we must help them find the balance between immediate answers they will likely forget and a deeper dive into lessons that interest them. Rather than dismissing the internet as a crutch, let’s encourage our students to see the internet as a resource that uplifts our education and mobilizes their everlasting curiosity.