Having grown up in a world of standardized testing and rigorous academic upbringing, it is easy to see how some children can get lost in the tumultuous waves of expectation. It is when these waves start crashing that the children get swept away in the current of passing and failing. Okay, I think that is enough of the marine analogy, but the point got across, right? If not, let me be more explicit. It is my belief that blanket teaching – the unspecified teaching of only the basic facts to a group – is leading to a disinterest in learning and an aversion to research. When students are forced to do extensive research on a topic they are not invested in their motivation quickly drops, causing the students to learn easy ways to finish rather than valuable methods of research and an appreciation for knowledge. While I am aware that the discussion and proposal that follows is unrealistic and idealistic, I believe it is a discussion that needs to be had in the hopes that a compromise can be found between the extremes of No Child Left Behind and autodidactism. After all, to quote Dr. Coats, what’s wrong with a little idealism? If it weren’t for the dreamers and idealists how would the world ever be improved? If we as a community can begin thinking outside the of the current educational (tool)box, we can work on cultivating a deep rooted passion for knowledge in whatever topic an individual may choose. It is the curiosity of these young learners that will revolutionize the future, and their passion that will inspire generations to come.
Within this paper I would like to demonstrate that, without constraints of timing, funding or testing, there are ways to engage with children and encourage them to seek knowledge. These methods focus on individualizing the educational experience (ie. avoiding “blanket teaching”) while still teaching the necessary basics to all students. By individualizing the experience, each student will get to make personalized decisions at a young age about what interests them and what they want to know more about. These interests will inspire students to seek out more knowledge and make connections between what they learn and what they love. With activities such as student research and teaching that allow this sort of divergence from the overarching lecture I believe that students will take a hands on approach to their own education. If these teaching methods are paired with some (possibly) unconventional activities that teach critical analysis of sources as well as creative researching, students can learn at a young age that research and writing are not things to be feared or stressed over. In this paper I will discuss a few web-based, free activities centered around Wikipedia, an ideal resource when it comes to trying to engage multiple students with varied interests. It is my intention to inspire other like-minded ideas, inspired by the examples of Wikipedia teaching explained later on, in an effort to individualize the learning experience and inspire curiosity.
First, let us discuss knowledge as a whole. Nelson and Engelbart both discuss knowledge, however their views on it seem to diverge. Nelson discusses knowledge as a powerful and elusive force in the world. His line “Knowledge is power and so it tends to be hoarded.” sounds like the dramatic opening to a fantasy novel, styled after Smeagol from Lord of the Rings. Followed by his comment about the priesthood, Nelson definitely sets the scene for a dark and mysterious quest for knowledge. This is countered by Engelbart’s more lighthearted view and imagery of knowledge. Engelbart is quick to state that man is born with an inherent set of capabilities and knowledge. While the environment may change just how you think and what you think about, as a human, one possesses innate abilities. Clearly this goes against Nelson’s view of knowledge being hoarded, because how can you hoard something everyone possesses? I cannot say I am partial to either of these views put forward. I would like to give Nelson the benefit of the doubt, as I know nothing about what technology was like or who possessed it in the 70s. However now, in 2014, I would very much like to believe that knowledge can be had and shared by all. If this is not the case then I would like to make it the case. As for Engelbart’s view, I am more ready to concede to his statement, however I would like to believe that we have more power over these innate abilities than he gives credit. While it may be true that we all have a latent set of capabilities, it is up to us to stir the beast that is curiosity and unleash it upon the world. That is what we are missing today in our young scholars, an unyielding curiosity.
Alan Kay, a well-respected computer scientist and pioneer of mobile learning, gave some anecdotal evidence that leads me to believe that knowledge itself is not enough in the world without understanding and application. The following text is his response to graduates of both Harvard University and UCLA, who were unable to give intelligent and well thought out answers to the questions “What causes the seasons?” and “Why are there phases of the moon?”
To those that didn’t understand the seasons, I asked if they knew what season it was in South America and Australia when it is summer in North America. They all knew it was winter. To those that didn’t understand the phases of the moon, I asked if they had ever seen the moon and the sun in the sky at the same time. They all had. Slowly, and only in a few, I watched them struggle to realize that having opposite seasons in the different hemispheres could not possibly be compatible with their “closer to the sun for summer” theory, and that the sun and the moon in the sky together could not possibly be compatible with their “Earth blocks the suns rays” theory of the phases.
This disconnect between knowledge and understanding is a prime example of the downfall that comes with what I am calling “linear learning”. For the purpose of this paper I will define linear learning as engaging in learning as a means to an end (ex. A-grade) rather than learning to understand and connect to the information. This linear learning is done to create a specific result, such as cramming for an exam in order to pass. Once this information has served its purpose it is pushed to the back of the brain where it is lost. I believe this can only be countered with “intrinsic learning”, learning for the sake of absorbing knowledge that is interesting and valuable to the self.
If one does not find value in what they are being taught then the information has nowhere to latch on to, no connections to be made. It is this that creates the problem Kay observed above, the information is secured away in the brain somewhere but it means nothing in a broader sense. Individual facts such as “when it is summer in America it is winter in Australia” can not be connected to the grander scheme because the scholars made no efforts to apply this knowledge. Intrinsic scholars, however, have a seemingly bottomless pit of knowledge to draw from, all revolving around singular interests that drive and motivate them. These interests, ideally, are so powerful and branching that the individual will make an effort to connect them to anything and everything possible. It is this sort of learner that I believe we should strive to be.
Before we dig too deep into the connections of knowledge and technology, let us take a look at the act of learning itself, and how it is affected by interest and motivation. The Role of Interest in Learning and Development, edited by Krapp, Hidi, and Renninger first attempts to draw attention to interest itself. The history of interest, the “interest in interest”, and the different types of interest. It is stated that interest is commonly used as an independent variable, causing an effect on the dependent variable, learning of some kind. These studies can be used directly in the classroom to inspire learning in currently dispassionate children. If we are able to engage each student on a level they can connect with, then an array of broad and various topics can be taught to the child while holding their interest. However without that interest, there is little hope of knowledge grasping the child in a meaningful and effective way.
Emily Rush saw this as a common problem among academically gifted students, many of whom would often show signs or complaints of boredom. Her research was documented in Motivation of Academically Gifted Students in which she categorized motivated students as those who “find value in their school experience”. Rush analyzes many articles for her own research in order to gain a well-balanced argument. One article discussed the downsides of giftedness including the mocking and exile by their peers and the lack of interest in the classroom due to the basic level of the concepts taught. I would like to see these attitudes changed by inspiring interest and motivation in all children, not just the gifted ones.
As seekers of knowledge in the age of technology, it is nearly impossible to analyze our interactions with research without looking at our interactions with the internet. Wai Mei Yeung-Fang admits in Does Technology Hinder or Enhance Learning and Teaching? that different schools of thought in regards to education will have different opinions on this topic. Fang believes though that it is possible to align any school of thought with technology, so long as the two are purposefully aligned. She states that the fault and error lies with those who have no school of thought prior to delving into the depths of technology. She seems to believe that once all of the vague elements are removed, the internet and technology would be a valuable tool. To put Yeung-Fang’s analysis into practice, we must require our teachers to carefully consider what it is they believe should be imparted onto their students, and then determine the most effective way of partnering this goal with their technological tools.
Doing Internet Research: Critical Issues and Methods for Examining the Net, edited by Steve Jones, uses the University of Tulsa’s inquiry class as an example of the potential there is to be teaching towards this not-so-new medium, and is conveniently a perfect example of Yeung-Fang’s theory at work. The class’ primary goal is to teach students to ask the questions “why?” and “who cares?” about every piece of research they come across. These questions are more important than they might seem at face value, as they are important both for a writer to ask him or herself about their own research, as well as an academic in reference to a piece of research they are reading. If no one cares then why bother? And if it exists then why is it worth caring about? By asking these questions we can try to mediate between the writer and the reader and maybe bridge the gap between the two. The class also works to stress the point that we cannot treat internet research like we do book research because it is not book research. We have to reevaluate the most important and effective methods of research and teach to that, not to tradition.
Alan Kay, whom I have mentioned above, aspired to do just this. He hoped to create a whole new ‘metamedium’ through his invention, the Dynabook, which would revolutionize the way children understood and conducted research and education. With the help of Goldberg, the Personal Dynamic Media tablet was introduced as a super tool which, if implemented correctly, would give children a hands on experience with math, science, music, art, architecture and more, all at their fingertips. Instead Steve Jobs gave us the iPad and little children just spend their time launching aggravated birds at little pigs. It is Kay’s original concept of the Dynabook that we need to look back on, to value, and to build upon. In this new age of multimedia it would be too difficult to combat it, so instead we must harness it for the good of knowledge.
So far I have done a lot of idealistic jabbering without backing my assertions. While I can’t promise I will stray away from the ideal, I would like to follow now with some ideas and examples of how to gain interest at an early age and cultivate it to create engaged and inspired learners. However I must reiterate that I am aware that these ideas alone may conflict with current school views about teaching towards standardized tests. My ideas alone won’t do much to change anything, however if more people begin to understand the value of intrinsic learning, perhaps we can work to merge the school system’s standards with creative and effective educational techniques.
The closest I was able to come to evaluating a case study for this assignment was evaluating my own history as a student and the attitudes of my fellow classmates around me. I know this is far from scientific, but again, humor me. As young students in particular (let’s say grades 3-6) it was very important to have a sense of individuality when it came to learning. While teachers would often choose to blanket teach, getting the bare basics to the widest spread, the students were clearly more engaged when they had a say in their education. What I would like to stress is that these two ideas are not mutually exclusive. Let’s say, for instance, that a class is learning about the American Civil War. Clearly there are important basics that the teacher must cover – causes, sides, important battles, important people, and outcome. However it’s the details that really engage the children. I propose that in these instances we encourage the students to find a way to research what they love. For instance, if a child has a particular affinity towards horses have them research cavalry in the Civil War. The student who leans toward the more morbid elements (I do admit this was me as a child) could study battlefield wounds, hospitals, and amputations, while the little romantic could study relationships between soldiers and their loved ones. It’s when children get assignments like these, which they relate to personally, that they go running excitedly home to tell mommy and daddy what they learned that day. This idea can be taken even a step further, by having each student present their own topic. When one person speaks passionately of a topic it is much easier for others to listen passionately. This sort of dynamic would relieve some of the burden from the teacher while inspiring children to make connections between what they love and what they do not yet know.
Forgive me while I further my idealism with one more example that I hope to be more accessible. It is through the online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, that I argue Nelson’s claim of a priesthood that hordes knowledge. Wikipedia is the great equalizer where everyone, experts and laymen alike, can contribute. This makes Wikipedia both an unstable source and a self-governing micro-community. While it may not be safe to trust as a cite-able source, it is a fabulous starting location in the researching process as well as a teaching tool in the classroom. The following will explain three different methods of using Wikipedia as a teaching tool in the classroom, all of which are geared at making students more effective and engaged researchers.
- The goal of this exercise is to demonstrate why Wikipedia is an unstable and unreliable source, as well as how to recognize other unreliable sources. The teacher pulls an article relating to the class from Wikipedia and alters it with false information. Have the class locate and recognize every false statement on Wikipedia and correct the information through valid and cited research. This allows the students to see both how easy it is to alter internet information, as well as how easy it is to fact check.
- The goal of this exercise is to observe the fluidity of Wikipedia and of modern day information. Pick an article at the start of the school year, preferably something high profile so it will get a lot of internet traffic. Once a week, or on whatever interval seems necessary, for the whole school year track the changes made to the article, including the number of changes and the validity of the changes. This can be done by taking a screen shot of every visit and comparing the articles side by side. For added fun and engagement, send students home every so often to make changes and see if the class catches them.
- The final goal is to learn to implement the game Wikipedia Wars as a form of concept experience prior to researching a topic. There are many variations to the game, which can be altered to change the lesson of the game. The basic concept of the game is to navigate through Wikipedia articles by only clicking on hyperlinks within the articles. So if you are encouraging your students to think more critically, you may have them get from point A to point B in as few clicks as possible. For example, if a student were charged with getting from Mary Toft’s Wikipedia entry to Alchemy, which hyperlink path would be the most direct route?
We start at the page of Mary Toft, who claimed to have given birth to a litter of rabbits — a story that is eerily similar to one of the 1001 stories told in Arabian Nights, but that is beside the point. There are dozens of links within the article to choose from and it is the student’s task to choose wisely between them. Let’s compare two reasonable paths. It is my job as an intelligent student to look a few steps ahead to determine where these paths may lead. I will compare placenta and urine because these seem like more promising leads to get to alchemy than miscellaneous 18th century physicians.
Following the placenta trail (ew, I know), I have gone to prophet and then to supernatural. This line of inquiry seems to be taking me further away from the pseudoscience that is alchemy and towards the paranormal. From this I have learned that I need to readjust my thought process. Instead I will try urine, which leads to Mercury, which I know from prior knowledge to be an important alchemical ingredient. Mercury’s hyperlinks lead me straight to the page for alchemy and I have successfully navigated my way from start to end, and was able to make connections between the topics all along the way. This game could also be played in a more open ended fashion, which could be used to inspire more creative thinking without knowing the end goal. Either way, hyperlink surfing is a great way to become inspired and find connections between topics that are far from obvious.
Engaging our students and teaching them to love learning from a young age is a lofty goal, but it should be of the utmost importance to all of us. It is not a passive endeavor, nor is it a short term one, but an active goal that will benefit generations to come. We need dreamers like Kay to come up with technologies to impress and inspire, we need educators like Yeung-Fang to study effective methods, and we need knowledge seekers like you and me to demonstrate how powerful things like interest and intelligence can be. We can’t have our children growing up afraid and wary of internet research or else progress will rest in the hands of the minority, not the majority. Let us not become the priesthood of knowledge hoarders that Nelson spoke of. In this one particular instance, we need to act as Communists, as givers and receivers of knowledge. Let us band together and work to inspire learners old and young alike, in order to build a more intelligent, a more engaged future.