Yesterday, our son was reading a caption of a photograph of Sam Houston from his history textbook and exclaimed, “Texas was its own country?! And this guy Sam Houston was its president?!” I started to open my mouth, to talk about the Alamo and Texas’s independence from Mexico, but I stopped and repeated to myself my mantra for this school year: Keep your mouth shut. “Hey,” I instead said, “Look up Texas in your book’s index or see what you can find via a Google search.” He did, did some reading, and then went off to finish his math homework. (You can read more about Sam Houston and the Texas Revolution here.)
In the past, the teacher side of me has been way too eager to answer his queries, about the branches of the federal government to the Pythagorean theorem to the definition of a gerund. Sure, it’s great to interact with our son over the scintillating topic of gerunds – and my goodness, gerund phrases! – but it does him a disservice. He has at his fingertips, with his phone and laptop, everything that he needs to discover information on his own, and we need to encourage him to do just that: To use the unlimited resources of the interweb. To be his own searcher, discoverer, miner, digger, etc. (Feel free to devise your own metaphor.)
I’m often surprised that that searching is not second nature to him, but that might be due to a combination of several things: (1) My previous enabling. (2) The belief that his phone and computer are for watching YouTube videos and other entertainment. (3) The lack of training that he’s had when it comes to searching the internet, both from us and from school. Given all that, it was interesting to go back to this 2012 report from the Pew Research Center, called How Teens Do Research in the Digital World, and look at its findings in the context of our 13-year-old. Here’s what jumped out at me:
- 64% of teachers surveyed said that today’s digital technologies “do more to distract students than to help them academically.”
- 76% of teachers strongly agreed that “internet search engines have conditioned students to expect to be able to find information quickly and easily.”
- 83% agreed that “the amount of information available online today is overwhelming to most students.”
- Many teachers suggested that their “students are surprisingly lacking in their online search skills,” with 43% of teachers rating students “poor” in “patience and determination in looking for information that is hard to find.”
- Lastly, when asked about curriculum changes in middle and high schools, 91% of surveyed teachers “strongly” or “somewhat” agreed that “courses or content focusing on digital literacy must be incorporated into every school’s curriculum.”
Sure, take a look at the full report, since I cherry-picked some of the more ugly findings. I find the last two bullet points interesting and relevant to the issue here at home – this lack of “patience and determination” and the need to teach digital literacy – not just at school but also here at home. We can’t just assume that it comes naturally; these “digital natives” (how I loathe that phrase) need much guidance and training, no matter how confident they might feel at their ability to text, to scroll through an Instagram account, or to watch and comment on a video about dogs sitting on cats.
That guidance and training is even more critical during the middle grades years, when significant brain development and sculpting is happening – see this past post – and the influences of teachers, parents, society, and technology are critical to that development and sculpting. It’s not enough then to simply keep my mouth shut and leave our son to his own devices (so to speak). Just as important is the help that I can give with the search and with the review of what was found, keeping in mind that this is a process, that one successful Google search does not make for an effective researcher and learner. We’re building a set of skills, and that takes time and effort.
So maybe a new mantra: No easy answers from me. Offer help with the search. Repeat.
I got the pic of Sam Houston here.