Saturday, April 28, 2012
This is not a rant about students relying on things like Google and Wikipedia for their schoolwork. It's not that at all. It is instead a rumination about the tendency of some students—at least one in particular—to rely on an information-at-your-fingertips approach to education. The student I have in mind appears to have lost—to a remarkable degree—the trait of self-reliance. Let's call this student “Shawn.” He took my algebra class. He took it twice, having flunked it the first time. In both semesters I was treated to Shawn's pop-up arm, which waved for my attention at the least provocation. As a highly interactive instructor, I welcome student questions and want them to feel that their queries are welcome. Shawn, however, was trying my patience (along with that of his classmates).
It took me a while to figure out what was going on. Ever in the moment, Shawn had abandoned thinking. If something—anything—gave him pause, his arm shot up. He wanted immediate clarification from the instructor in preference to actually thinking about it himself. Somewhere along the line he had discovered that the path of least resistance involved asking the professor.
Back in the old days before the World Wide Web and Google, I sometimes fussed for hours (or even days), wracking my brain trying to recover some odd bit of information. I'd pull books off the shelf and page through them. Did I read it in this one? Should I dig out the encyclopedia? Did a friend mention it to me in conversation? Should I try calling him? (Which one?) As you may have heard, we call these the “good old days.” I confess, however, that the Internet and Google have become two of my most cherished friends. Facts and factoids are at my fingertips and I discover or rediscover things with alacrity and pleasure.
Shawn doesn't have Google in the classroom. He has me: Professor Instant Gratification. (I had a lesson to learn as much as Shawn did.)
The starkest example of Shawn's abandonment of thinking arose during a lesson on nonlinear systems of equations. I had created an elementary introductory problem involving a parabola and a line, writing their equations on the board and telling the students we were going to discover the points where their graphs crossed each other. The computations were straightforward (amazing, isn't it, how simple the answers are for Example 1?). Then I told the students we were going to examine the plausibility of our solutions by graphing the two curves and considering their appearance.
Up went Shawn's hand.
“How did you compute those values?”
“The values in the table?”
“Yeah. Where did those come from?”
Mind you, we had done the parabola to death in the previous chapter. We had graphed vertical parabolas and horizontal parabolas. We had found their axis intercepts with the quadratic formula (if necessary). Several old quizzes and the most recent exam had featured the parabola most prominently. All of the students, including Shawn, had had multiple exposures to the mundane task of plotting a parabola. He had had even more examples of plugging in conveniently chosen numbers to evaluate algebra expressions for graphing. Shawn's question was extraordinarily lame.
“Shawn, I want you to think about that.”
“I want you to think about that. I'm finding points that lie on the graph of a parabola, picking x's and computing y's. You've done that yourself, right?”
“Lots of times.”
“Okay. Do it now.”
“Oh,” he said.
“Right,” I said, hoping that he was indeed right in what he was thinking.
It was not easy, but “think about it” became a standard response to many of Shawn's too-quick questions. By degrees, he eventually became more self-reliant instead of instantaneously asking the professor. He never learned to postpone gratification to quite the degree I would have liked, but he got a little better. He stopped asking questions without thinking and I stopped answering so automatically.
And Shawn's classmates got more rest for their eye-rolling muscles.