Take a look at this question: How do modern novels represent the characteristics of humanity?

If you were tasked with answering it, what would your first step be? Would you scribble down your thoughts — or would you Google it?

Terry Heick, a former English teacher in Kentucky, had a surprising revelation when his eighth- and ninth-grade students quickly turned to Google.

“What they would do is they would start Googling the question, ‘How does a novel represent humanity?’ ” Heick says. “That was a real eye-opener to me.”

For those of us who grew up with search engines, especially Google, at our fingertips — looking at all of you millennials and post-millennials — this might seem intuitive. We grew up having our questions instantly answered as long as we had access to the Internet.

Now, with the advent of personal assistants like Siri and Google Now that aim to serve up information before you even know you need it, you don’t even need to type the questions. Just say the words and you’ll have your answer.

But with so much information easily available, does it make us smarter? Compared to the generations before who had to adapt to the Internet, how are those who grew up using the Internet — the so-called “Google generation” — different?

Heick had intended for his students to take a moment to think, figure out what type of information they needed, how to evaluate the data and how to reconcile conflicting viewpoints. He did not intend for them to immediately Google the question, word by word — eliminating the process of critical thinking.

More Space To Think Or Less Time To Think?

There is a relative lack of research available examining the effect of search engines on our brains even as the technology is rapidly dominating our lives. Of the studies available, the answers are sometimes unclear.

Some argue that with easy access to information, we have more space in our brain to engage in creative activities, as humans have in the past.

Whenever new technology emerges — including newspapers and television — discussions about how it will threaten our brainpower always crops up, Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker wrote in a 2010 op-ed in The New York Times. Instead of making us stupid, he wrote, the Internet and technology “are the only things that will keep us smart.”

Daphne Bavelier, a professor at the University of Geneva, wrote in 2011 that we may have lost the ability for oral memorization valued by the Greeks when writing was invented, but we gained additional skills of reading and text analysis.

Writer Nicholas Carr contends that the Internet will take away our ability for contemplation due to the plasticity of our brains. He wrote about the subject in a 2008 article for The Atlantic titled “Is Google Making Us Stupid.”

“… what the [Internet] seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation,” Carr wrote.

The few studies available, however, do not seem to bode well for the Google generation.

A 2008 study commissioned by the British Library found that young people go through information online very quickly without evaluating it for accuracy.

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.

‘I’m Always On My Computer’

Michele Nelson, an art teacher at Estes Hills Elementary School in Chapel Hill, N.C., seems to share Carr’s concerns. Nelson, who has been teaching for more than nine years, says it was obvious with her middle school students and even her 15-year-old daughter that they are unable to read long texts anymore.

“They just had a really hard time comprehending if they went to a website that had a lot of information,” Nelson says. “They couldn’t grasp it, they couldn’t figure out what the important thing was.”

Nelson says she struggles with the same problem.

“I’m always on my computer. … I don’t read books as much as I used to,” she says. “It’s a lot harder for my brain to get to a place where I can follow and enjoy the reading, and I get distracted very easily.”

The bright side lies in a 2009 study conducted by Gary Small, the director of University of California Los Angeles’ Longevity Center, that explored brain activity when older adults used search engines. He found that among older people who have experience using the Internet, their brains are two times more active than those who don’t when conducting Internet searches.

Internet searching, Small says, is like a brain exercise that can be good for our mental health.

“If somebody has normal memory when they’re older, I always encourage them to use the computer,” he says. “It enhances our lives.”

For Small, the problem for younger people is the overuse of the technology that leads to distraction. Otherwise, he is excited for the new innovations in technology.

“We tend to be economical in terms of how we use our brain, so if you know you don’t have to memorize the directions to a certain place because you have a GPS in your car, you’re not going to bother with that,” Small says. “You’re going to use your mind to remember other kinds of information.”

How To Teach Digital Natives?

Heick has since left teaching to start TeachThought, a company that produces content to support teachers in “innovation in teaching and learning for a 21st century audience.”

To him, the Internet holds great potential for education — but curriculum must change accordingly. Since content is so readily available, teachers should not merely dole out information and instead focus on cultivating critical thinking, he says.

“Classroom walls and school building walls are transparent, with technology essentially bringing the outside world to the classroom and vice versa,” he says.

Heick says his company recently started working with schools and organizations in a few states, including North Carolina, Texas and New York, to develop lesson plans.

“Google really lubricates that access to information and while that is fantastic, it makes us have to change a bit the way we think about things,” Heick says. “Because we’re so busy, we have this false security that we understand something because we Googled it. Now we’re moving on to the next thing instead of really rolling around with this idea and trying to understand it.”

One of his recommendations is to make questions “Google-proof.”

“Design it so that Google is crucial to creating a response rather than finding one,” he writes in his company’s blog. “If students can Google answers — stumble on (what) you want them to remember in a few clicks — there’s a problem with the instructional design.”

Meanwhile, teenagers are also aware of how the Internet is taking ahold of their lives. Caitlyn Nelson, teacher Michele Nelson’s daughter, finds it hard to focus when she is forced to do readings or even exams online. Like most teenagers, sometimes she finds herself surfing the Web when she’s supposed to be reading PowerPoint slides in class.

Caitlyn talks about a video they watched in English class about the impact of technology.

“We talked about how technology is changing … how most people are basically becoming zombies and slaves to the Internet because that’s all we can do,” she says.

“I feel really bad that I’m connected to my phone all the time instead of talking to my mom. But she’s also addicted to her phone.”

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.
How Has Google Affected The Way Students Learn? 8 February,2016Ki Sung

  • kryten8

    I’m an English teacher and I would still go to google for the initial question because it is poorly written. I *think* I know what the teacher is looking for, but I’d want backup before spending the time answering an in-depth question that is vague at best (unless the entire previous lesson was on the characteristics of humanity, in which case, questions answered and the kids will get worse answers out of google than the day’s handout or notes).

    Basically, kids go to google when they’re confused or, as noted, want easy answers. It’s entirely possible to make wonderful questions that resist googling while still not confusing the heck out of them.

    Another way to work around google is to pose the deep questions in class, so support is readily available without google in the form of peers or the teacher.

  • Ross Peterson

    The point about us being economical with our brains is key, I think.

    All tools and technology are essentially extensions of our own capacities.

    Let’s make an analogy to computer architecture:

    The internet and search engines are cognitive extensions for information storage and retrieval (memory).

    But the time to recall something from the internet (an I/O operation, like reading from a file on disk from a data center in some remote place) is still a lot longer than we have for our brains — we have to look it up rather than just recall it.

    So, we should cache important, frequently used items in our local cache (our brains)
    and less frequent, less important information further away.

    (More importantly, I think) We also need to be responsible for maintaining/improving our operating systems — our emotive capacities, discernment, judgment, logical reasoning, problem solving, value and moral reasoning, etc.

    Education therefore concerns the local cache (what we remember) and the operating system (how we behave and operate on information).

  • slcomstock

    I, too, would like to see more nuance when we discuss technology and learning. In my own doctoral research into young adult everyday life information seeking behaviors within formal and informal learning environments (http://hdl.handle.net/2142/34419), I learned that Information behavior in learning contexts is a complex (and rich) area that requires us to step back from being overly certain about what constitutes “right ways” to building understanding and knowledge. We tend to draw too-rigid generational lines (children/teens/adult and GenX/Millennial/GenZ etc.); and over-emphasize “acceptable” vs. “unacceptable” tools/technologies used in learning without really understanding the situated nature of the information ecology that created–or inspired–the initial inquiry. Being able to identify when we are uncertain *defines* learning. Turning to Google or any other source is one tiny piece of an iterative process; and is grounded in the very social nature of any inquiry. Many workplace studies (health practitioners, engineers, scientists, educators etc.) show that we all use our immediately accessible tools–including colleagues, friends, etc.–to refine a problem toward its solution. And Google, WebMD, GitHub, etc. are a natural part of the information landscape based on the question, discipline, and experience with a given tool.

  • Julie Conrad

    I think Google can be a great resource for students. It can help in their understanding of a topic, allow them to find quick answers to questions they would normally have to wait for the teacher to answer, and it opens students up to the entire world. I agree, however, that assessments should not be focused answers a students can Google. We need to teach our students how to use the information they find on Google to form opinions, solve problems, and think critically about problems and topics. Google should be a resource to use to form answers, not the place a students can go to find the answers.

  • Phillip Cowell

    Any discussion about “learning” needs to begin with a definition of “learning”. Is it to memorize, understand, apply, develop a skill, apply a skill?
    In “real life” our ability to read an entire book is really not an important one. Our ability to solve problems and move forward is. The reason students struggle is because technology is highlighting how little of what we “learn” in school is of any practical use in helping us to achieve anything. Or at least is “taught” in such a removed way from the real world as to appear so.

    Why not Google the question “‘How does a novel represent humanity?” Because let’s face it. for most of us for most of our lives – who cares?

  • Megan Pattenhouse

    I found that this post really challenged my thinking about how I am teaching my students to use the internet. I work with all Title 1 students and the majority of my class doesn’t have access to internet or a computer at home, with the exception of some who have access on a mobile device. (For more on the challenges that presents here are some stats from MindShift:http://ww2.kqed.org/mindshift/2016/02/03/whats-lost-when-kids-are-under-connected-to-the-internet/)

    When working with my 4th graders, I found it an extreme challenge to teach them how to Google (“Why can’t I just type in my whole question?” “Why didn’t the first thing I clicked on tell me the answer?” are some common questions I was answering during these lessons). Something that comes so naturally for me, a millennial , and for most of their more affluent peers was really hard for them to wrap their mind around- party I think because one’s Googling skills are often honed through a high volume of trial and error.

    This post has challenged me to think about how I scaffold my instruction for my students so that the end goal is not just for them to be able to Google to find a piece of information but to push them to form critical opinions about the information they gather.

  • Richard Ballard

    Whilst it is definitely an interesting topic to debate the specifics of how Google has affected learning I’m not sure we are adequately addressing the impact this subsequently has on our curriculum and teacher preparedness. All good teachers have a wide variety of skills and tools that they use to engage learners. Technology is no longer an optional tool for some to use. Many will need support to learn the skills to survive as further developments continue to become reality. Within education, search engines and personal digital assistants are seen as a useful tool when used appropriately. The curriculum also needs to change to ensure that it takes into account this revolution in access to information. However, it is a challenging time for educators to consider making curriculum changes when technology advances at such a rapid rate. How do you keep curriculum up to date with technology?

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