That’s a real place?

Late last week my government students were working on a group analysis activity and my computer’s screen saver kicked in. Photos of Hawaii and Kazakhstan were creating a collage on the projected screen. One of my students asked, “Ms Wolfe, where is that?” When I responded, one of my other students chimed in with, “Kazakhstan? That’s a real place?”  (A proud moment for Borat I am sure.) As I confirmed that Kazakhstan was, indeed, a real place, my other students laughed. I shuddered.

The past several weeks at our school have been the stage for many conversations: What does quality teaching look like? Learning?  What role does data-driven instruction play? Technology?  And, ultimately, what do students really need to know if they can grab their device and quickly look up just about anything?

Earlier this week one of my colleagues wrote “4 Americans killed on boat” on the board. She gave students five minutes to use any resources available to them to learn as much about that statement as possible. Some used Google on their phones, others headed to the halls and asked teachers to check the Internet for details. While they came up with an impressive amount of information in five minutes, and my colleague made the point to them that they have the tools to learn, they still needed someone to tell them the starting point of their search.

In my classroom, obviously my student had heard of Kazakhstan (yes, it was really because of Borat), assumed it was fictitious, never bothered to type it into the box of a favorite search engine, and never exchanged that false assumption for truth.

Does it matter that my student did not just know Kazakhstan was a place? Does it matter that only one of the 20+ students in my colleague’s classroom knew about the killing of the Americans by Somali pirates prior to their exercise? Some contend that it isn’t important that students know countries, capitals, news, etc because “Well, they can just look it up on the Internet,” but what base knowledge is needed? How do we instill that desire to question and want to learn?  What is needed to be known before one can have any idea of what to type in a search box? How do we help them to want to ask the questions?

I spent this week working on teaching our technology students effective searching skills. (I really tried to make it more interesting than the lectures we all remember about Boolean connectors.)  While some expressed a value gained from the lesson, this fact remains: even if they have the best searching skills in the world, if there is no basic knowledge from which to draw and no desire to learn, the search box will sit as empty as the mind.