Thursday, May 15, 2008

Word Play (and procrastination)

I should be doing my homework but I've been doing a lot of reading lately (me? read?!) and I wanted to share a few of the thoughts it provoked. As a reader and writer I really enjoy language - puns, playing on the meanings of words, homophones and homonyms and everything else. I'm no English major but I know enough to get by in polite society, or so I like to think.

As a natural offshoot of reading, writing, and playing with words, sometimes I come up with questions - What is the connection (or separation) between condemn and condone? I know their definitions, but 'con' as a prefix didn't quite make sense to me in those words. So what do 'demn' and 'done' mean and how does that change 'con'? (demn is from damnare, Latin: to sentence; done is from donare, also Latin, to donate.) Stuff like this runs through my head in the shower and if I remember later I go look it up with Mirriam-Webster and friends at

That train of thought - how easy it is to pull out the electronic dictionary on a whim - sparked some additional insight on teaching. Teachers today many times run into kids who either claim that school is useless for them or that they 'already know it all'. In many cases neither of these claims is true, but it is getting much easier to "know it all", with a little help from our friend Google. I would consider myself an active learner; I seek to engage myself in learning experiences on a daily basis and when I don't get them from a classroom I try to make other connections. A few years ago I probably would have had to find someone nearby to answer any questions I had about etymology, etc unless I had the full (and very expensive) version of Webster's Unabridged sitting around the house. Most people don't even HAVE a dictionary these days, or so it seems - This article tells a touching but probably all too common tale of third graders who were completely unfamiliar with dictionaries and who did not own them at home. And yet I can open a new tab and type the right combination of key words (which might take a few tries) into Google and get you that very article without so much as needing to know it existed, let alone having to look up where it was published, dates, or know how to scan a newspaper database. Information is literally a few keystrokes away.

This kind of open learning environment is one I love, but I think for many people, the knowledge that the information is there is not akin to being curious or able to access it. Someone can now claim to be a know-it-all, and as long as they're sitting at a computer connected to the internet they can try to prove it with virtually no physical, social, or mental work required. They don't even have to read what they're telling you - "key words" do the work for them (although it's always a good idea to pre-read or skim what you plan to present as proof, as many researchers will tell you). The skills to utilize that kind of open information setting are what we should be (and in some cases are) teaching in schools, but for a student who has seen what Google and Wikipedia do for his/her older sister's history report and his best friend's knowledge of how to "get chicks" (even though at 12 he's never practiced) it's probably already too late to start teaching good research skills, how to find reliable sources, and all the other practical parts of learning that no amount of reading will ever give you.

I think in some respects the seemingly endless fountain of information available on the internet is liberating. It gets me out of the classrooms that I associate with powerpoint lectures and well-meaning teachers and into a realm of connections (links, key word searches, images, and video) which I can make or leave for later as I choose. I say "make" because for me reading the article on combustion engines will teach me something, but when I choose to read the connecting articles - on different fuels, maybe, or on rotary engines, how engines are built, or common engine problems, I am not just clicking links in the web, I am making more connections. I am adding more to that file folder in my brain that's now labeled "mechanics" so that later when I read something about fuel efficiency I can connect further. School sometimes fails to to this, but the tactics I learned in school to deal with forming and arranging connections have been invaluable to me as a denizen of the internets.

I love learning like this and I think many others do as well... but I worry about how this kind of learning experience is leaving some people behind (those without 24/7 connectivity or computer experience are foremost, along with those who are already lacking in the background cultural knowledge necessary to 'get' the jokes, arguments, and other things that show up in academia) and separating the classroom and the teacher from their preconceived purposes. This is not to say that the intended purpose of an educator and an education is today what it should be or has been. It is however a growing concern that students rarely see the use or legitimate claims of classroom knowledge in a world where the teacher often seems out of touch with rapidly growing technology and the administration even more so.

What is the solution to our information issues? Handing students the basic tools to explore their world and then letting go has been a wonderful teaching method in the past but there is such thing as information overload - and the internet in all its glory is certainly capable of causing it. It is also capable of sparking interest in "boring" subject matter, making things easily accessible for students of any age... and misleading us.

What is the role of the teacher in learning, if the student does not see a need for guidance in their search for information? Where and how do we set boundaries on what is to be taught, if boundaries are to be set? We can't enforce boundaries on learning if the student is determined enough to learn outside the classroom (which is actually something I would love to see happening!). And how do we excite the students who have decided that even with the knowledge of the world at their fingertips, they would rather not explore? What will bring them into the circle of lifelong learners? It's a very complicated issue... and Google doesn't have the answer! :(

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