Education Opinion

Students Need to Learn How to Obtain Knowledge: Part I

By Matthew Lynch — November 03, 2016 4 min read
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In this vast digital age, there is more information available than can ever possibly be processed, and the way that students vet this data is incredibly important. While the internet has opened up the world in amazing and beautiful ways, it has also skewed the way information is obtained. Instant knowledge, or perceived knowledge, is available as soon as kids are old enough to type in a computer password or swipe the lock screen of a tablet or smartphone. The internet has eliminated the information exploration process in many ways, with search engine providers racing to spoon feed people the exact answers they need with the fastest speed.

For those of us who grew up in the pre-internet days, the idea of simply Googling the answer for our homework is mind-boggling. If computers were used in classrooms pre-1995 or so, they had specific educational programs preloaded. There was no wandering from one website to the next, and even academic databases were clunky in nature and still took significant time to navigate. Half of the learning battle was to find the right information after digging through a lot of the wrong material first.

The payoff, of course, was finding that perfect reference or piece of information that fit the assignment. The skills developed finding that nugget of knowledge were retained for the next search. Those of us who went on to college, and grad school and even pursued even more advanced degrees continued to implement those search-and-find tactics to reach our goals. We had built the foundation early in our K-12 learning careers and knew how to find and implement reliable knowledge.

Now fast forward to a baby born today. This child will likely be the star of an entire Facebook photo album before she is even one day old. Her milestone moments of early childhood will be plastered on the Facebook, Twitter and Instagram feeds of her doting parents and by the time she is a toddler, there will be at least a few smartphone or tablet apps that belong to her on her parents’ devices. Her life will be an open book in many respects, chronicled for her own parents’ posterity but also shared with a world of close friends and not-so-close acquaintances. By the time she starts Kindergarten, she will have spent thousands of hours staring at screens - whether they be the computer, tablet, television or otherwise. Technology won’t be exciting or new but will be a pretty mundane part of life.

There is no way to take away the technology experiences that kids have before they even enter our public K-12 classrooms, and we shouldn’t want to do that anyway. It does change the way this generation of K-12 students will approach the pursuit of knowledge, though, and it is vastly different from previous ones. Perhaps just as important as the facts our students learn is making sure they are confident and correctly obtaining that knowledge. Assessments are one way to check up on this goal.

Assessments of the future will need to ask more questions about the how of knowledge and not just focus on the what. There is no longer one set of books that answer a particular set of questions, and even materials as traditional as U.S. history books are coming under scrutiny for being too one-dimensional.

These truths are perhaps most evident in Texas, where a battle wages on regarding the inclusion of alternative versions of American history textbooks in high schools. More than 50 organizations and a coalition of Hispanic-American educators in the state petitioned the Texas State Board of Education to allow alternative history as an elective for high school students. The petitioners were not asking to change the traditional textbooks, but merely to add more perspectives to the learning process for those who elected it. The petition was denied officially for cost concerns, but certain board members admitted that they feared the leftist ideals that could be infused into the textbooks that could disrupt the order of things when it came to learning about history in Texas classrooms.

Politics aside, the debate in Texas brings up some other interesting points as they relate to how exactly this generation of K-12 students obtains knowledge. Simply disallowing the alternative histories in classrooms does not cut off student access from them, it just directs them to unauthorized versions that can be created, and posted online, by anyone. This is true for any topic.

Students have all of the information they will ever need at the tips of their fingers, and they will grow up never knowing what life was like pre-Internet. They don’t need to go to the library, or check a few sources before determining the true answer - they just need a smartphone. This presents a slippery slope for educators, who have been told to embrace the very technology that often misinforms their students. Not all free information, particularly online, is created equal. More than ever, educators need to show students how to find the answers on their own.

In Part II of this series, I will discuss how you can teach students to obtain the BEST knowledge from the pool of available options.

The opinions expressed in Education Futures: Emerging Trends in K-12 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.