Internet Searching and Thinking Skills

March 5, 2010 · Posted in Studies · Comment 

A recent study from UCLA (reported here) found that Internet searching exercises the brains of older people by activating their neural circuitry, confirmed by MRI records. While similar studies have not been carried out in younger students, I have always held the position that learning to search correctly and efficiently involves higher order thinking skills that are a potential benefit for students of any age. What is surprising is how few post secondary students know how to construct effective search queries. I believe it’s a skill that should be taught and reinforced, even at the post secondary level.

While search engines such as Google are becoming ever more effective at natural language searching (e.g., “How tall is the Empire State Building?”), it is still the case that forming good search queries usually results in better information. It’s also the case that the actual formation of those search queries involves thinking skills that are applicable to Boolean math and logic.

For younger students, the simple knowledge of using quotes and minus signs (-) to structure searches can be a powerful tool. For example, let’s assume that a fifth grader is looking for information on the Protestant theologian Martin Luther. Entering Martin Luther as a search query will return a lot of useful information, but it will also return information on the much more prevalent Martin Luther King. A simple application of quotes and a minus sign:

“Martin Luther” -King

instructs a search engine to search for the literal phrase “Martin Luther” but not the term “King.”

Although plus signs (+) are no longer necessary with most search engines as they interpret a search item without a + to be a required term, younger students may benefit from using a plus sign in constructing a search query. For example, to find out about Martin Luther (but not Martin Luther King) and about Luther’s role in the Protestant Reformation, a student could use:

“Martin Luther” -King +”Protestant Reformation”

Even with younger students, Boolean logic terms can be used to create a query. It’s instructive, especially with younger students, to create Boolean queries and examine their results. For example,

“New York” AND “hot dogs”

returns very different results than does

“New York” OR “hot dogs”

Using an everyday action–in this case, searching for information–can create a significant learning opportunity for students.

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Digital Consumers

February 26, 2008 · Posted in citizenship, Studies, Teaching 2.0 · Comment 

In a recent article on Ars Technia (The “Google generation” not so hot at Googling, after all), Nate Anderson reviewed a study by the British Library and the Joint Information Systems Committee that examined the internet researching habits of the “Google Generation”–those born after 1993 that have no memory of life prior to the World Wide Web. (The full report is available as a PDF file and is well worth reading.) One of Anderson’s statements struck an immediate chord with me:

“Knowing how to use Facebook doesn’t make one an Internet search god, and the report concludes that a literature review shows no movement (either good or bad) in young people’s information skills over the last several decades”

It was somewhat gratifying to see empirical evidence of a trend that I have observed anecdotally for quite some time. We tend to assume that, because post-secondary students typically have laptops, WiFi enabled cell phones, and other digital tools that they are expert technology users. I would agree that most of the “Googlers” are highly facile with the tools and processes that they use, but I would also assert that these tools may be limited in scope and are not necessarily the tools that will bring academic success. Students are quite adept at using social networking tools such as FaceBook and MySpace and with shopping sites, but many do not know the basics of productivity applications such as PowerPoint, Word, or image editing tools. Many do not know how to install software or add a printer. Wikipedia is often the first and only source of information for a research topic. And, for as much time as they spend Googling, many do not know how to form cogent search queries.

We tend to call students of this generation “digital natives.” I would assert that they may be more properly called “digital consumers.” And, we tend to blame them for their lack of skills when, in reality, we–their teachers–are the culprits.

One of the roles that educators at all levels need to embrace is that of a guide to the appropriate uses of technology for learning. Social networking tools such as blogs and wikis have tremendous potential for engaging students in the learning process if they are applied thoughtfully and evaluated rigorously. We should be teaching and reinforcing good research skills every day in every classroom, including instruction on how to compose search queries and where to look for reliable sources. (Check this web site from for 25 sites for reliable, researched facts.) We should be working digital content creation–digital photography, digital video, podcasts, etc.–into our lessons on a regular basis. And we should be good models to our students, using technology in our own teaching and learning processes.

Your Own Child Left Behind?

September 25, 2007 · Posted in NCLB, Studies · 1 Comment 

It’s difficult to find arguments for the success of NCLB, but here’s a unique twist on the topic. Parents (at least those in Kansas) don’t appear to support strengthening math, science, and technology programs to enhance 21st century skills. This report from eSchool News suggests that parents are on the whole satisfied with “basic” skills in math and science and do not see the need for advanced skills for their own children.

“The dilemma is really twofold,” says Jean Johnson, executive vice president of Public Agenda. “One is that parents, students, and local communities may be complacent about or even resist efforts to strengthen math and science education. Right now, most just don’t share leaders’ sense of urgency. The second is that many young people and their families may not recognize the vast and interesting opportunities available to students with strong math and science backgrounds. They just may not have absorbed how much the economy and future jobs are changing.”

I guess it doesn’t take a government program to leave children behind when parents are willing to do it themselves.

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Preparing Students for College?

September 13, 2007 · Posted in NCLB, Studies, Teaching 2.0 · Comment 

This article from eSchool News–Report: Schools Aren’t Preparing Kids for College–is required reading. In it, eSchool News Assistant Editor Meris Stansbury reports on a panel discussion convened by the Alliance for Excellent Education that examined AEE’s brief on how US high schools do–or don’t–prepare students for success in college.

Some of the findings:

  • Thirty-four percent of US high school students graduate ready for college;
  • Eighteen percent of high school freshmen graduate in four years, go on to college, and earn an associate’s or bachelor’s degree;
  • One-third of those who make it to college must take remedial courses;
  • Sixty-five percent of college professors do not believe that high school standards prepare students for college

The issue is not just one of preparing students for college. According to ACT’s Cyndie Schmeiser, “recent studies have shown that the skills needed to succeed in college are similar to the skills needed for good-paying jobs.”

Don’t finish reading this post. Go read the article, and download the AEE’s brief, “AEE’s Issue Brief: “High School Teaching for the Twenty-First Century: Preparing Students for College.

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Research on Social Networking

September 12, 2007 · Posted in social networking, Studies, Web 2.0 · 2 Comments 

Wired for FaceBook?

As my university students and I delve more into the phenomenon of social networking, I find myself looking for research that addresses the reasons that so many folks find social networking so compelling. Many of my students have an almost palpable fear of being un-connected to their network of friends, be that realized through cell phone, text messaging, instant messaging, Facebook/MySpace/LiveJournal, and even e-mail. Some of my students maintain contacts in more than one of the aforementioned media simultaneously. The rapid rise of Twitter (“what are you doing right now?”) as a communication platform is further evidence of the need for constant affirmation through social contact. But how does this compare to “real,” face-to-face contact?

Evolutionary psychology may give us some clues. Michael Rogers, a columnist for MSNBC, recently reviewed a book by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar called “Gossip, Grooming, and the Evolution of Language” [Amazon link]. In this book, Dunbar examined the behavior of humans long before civilization or language developed. His basic premise is that understanding one’s place in the social hierarchy of early hominid groups was critical for survival and that this was largely accomplished by the same kind of grooming behavior that we currently see in apes, chimps, and monkeys. As these early hominid groups became larger, mutual grooming of every “tribe” member became impossible. The vehicle that replaced grooming as a social contact was language. Language facilitated quicker communication and the ability to communicate with multiple individuals at the same time. As Rogers puts it, “we haven’t stopped gossiping since.”

Intriguingly, Dunbar points out that there is a practical limit to the number of individuals with whom a single individual can maintain this kind of contact. That number is about 150. Large scale groups have developed a series of ways to compensate for this limitation by forming bureaucracies, social stratification, or other mechanisms to keep the numbers down to a manageable size, but the limitation still exists.

So–is social networking the next evolutionary step in increasing the number of contacts that an individual may have while still being able to understand one’s place in the hierarchy? Are we “wired” to have a Facebook page? It’s clearly too early to tell, but these are interesting times…

Who Are Your Friends?

“Social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace do not help you make more genuine close friends, according to a survey by researchers who studied how the websites are changing the nature of friendship networks.”

That quote is from an article by Guardian science correspondent James Randerson titled “Social Networking Sites Don’t Deepen Friendships.” Citing results from a survey about the nature of friendships and how they may be influenced by social networks, Randerson concludes that, while an individual may have thousands of friends collected on MySpace or Facebook, these friends are not the same as friends developed in traditional face to face situations. Researchers found a distinction between friends made through a social network and “close” friends made by traditional means.

This is probably not a surprise to anyone. Trust engendered through traditional friendships is difficult to build and maintain through a medium in which it is so easy to misrepresent yourself. However, it appears to be the case that the generally accepted limit of 150 acquaintances (or 5 close friends) may be expanded through social networks by making it easier to keep in touch over distance and making it less expensive–both financially and in terms of effort expended–to maintain a large number of social contacts.

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Ummm…I Told You So

July 31, 2007 · Posted in NCLB, Studies · 1 Comment 

This post will be short but sweet.

The results of a study published in Educational Researcher show that progress in raising student test scores has slowed (and has even declined in reading) since the enactment of No Child Left Behind in 2002. Prior to 2002, state-led efforts at reform were actually making significant progress in narrowing racial and income-based achievement gaps. The federally-mandated NCLB program has effectively quashed those gains.

An abstract of the study is available here. The full study, authored by Bruce Fuller, UC-Berkeley, is available as a PDF file.

You don’t increase someone’s height through the act of measuring it.

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Ed Tech and Student Achievement, Part 2

July 25, 2007 · Posted in Studies · Comment 

Two studies reported recently in eSchool News highlight two important aspects of educational technology and student achievement:

  1. Educational technology has the capability of raising student achievement based on performance on standardized testing, and
  2. The effectiveness of educational reform is based on good technology implemented by capable teachers and backed up by administrative vision and ongoing support.

eSchool News Volume 10, No. 7 cites the preliminary results from a federally-funded study looking at technology’s impact on teaching and learning. Nine states have been participating in a cooperative program to enhance teaching and learning through technology. These programs have been implemented in a variety of ways. For example:

  • Professional development through peer networking and videoconferencing (Iowa);
  • One to one laptop programs (Texas);
  • Students using technology to solve real-world problems (Arkansas).

Preliminary results from four of the participating states show gains in math and reading achievement, school attendance, interaction with peers, high school graduation rates, engagement in lessons, and the number of students going on to college after high school. Similarly, decreases in discipline problems were noted in some states. (Not all states looked at the same results from their data.) Study results to this point are posted on the State Educational Technology Directors Association’s (SETDA) web site, with more to come as studies are finalized.

In another article entitled Educators Reveal Secrets of Reform, eSchool News looks at reasons that some ubiquitous technology programs are more successful than others. Perhaps to no-one’s surprise, a joint conference sponsored by SETDA and the Alliance for Excellent Education (AEE) highlighted these factors common to successful programs:

  1. Leadership provides vision and support;
  2. On-going professional development changes teaching and learning;
  3. Data drive decisions;
  4. High-quality resources and tools support engaged learning and high-quality teaching, and
  5. Communication across the district–with parents and all stakeholders–is key.

Mary Ann Wolf, SETDA Executive Director, summed up the conferences findings: “As you look across these examples, you begin to see that this good teaching, this individualized approach using the resources that meet the needs of each student, the possibility of student-centered instruction–all lead to an increase in the skills needed for our students to graduate and be college- and work-ready.”

The eSchool article has links to school-based ed tech programs that have proven successful and which were represented at the conference. Good reading…

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