Thursday, March 13, 2014

Google is NOT an Answer Generating Machine!: Grit and Too Much Google


In Genius Hour, I hope that students learn about more than just their topics.  In an earlier post, I noted that students can learn more profound lessons from their projects.  I am also hoping that students learn more about the nature of research.

After students selected their topic, it was time to begin research (January 31 was the first day we conducted research).  Invariably the first place they went was Google.  Google searches are very useful, but there are three major problems with the way students search Google.

The first problem is that students often type full questions for their search query: "Who is X?" "Where is Y?" "What is Z?" "What is a 9/11 Genius Hour project?"   I knew this would be a problem so before unleashing them to conduct their research so we had a short lesson on the best search strategies.  Nevertheless, when students began researching, some students immediately reverted to asking full questions as if they would be able to find an entire Genius Hour project online that they could then use as their own.  As I circulated the room in first period, I calmly reminded the first two or three students what we had just talked about concerning search strategies. After spotting another student conducting a ridiculous search, I exclaimed "Google is NOT an answer generating machine!  You will not find YOUR project online."  I then proceeded to very adamantly explain in more depth how search engines work.  In subsequent class periods on that late January day, I used that line as part of the lesson on search strategies.  How have students done in subsequent research sessions?  We've had five Fridays of reseach since and I have noticed that students have done more refined searches.  Occasionally, I'll encounter a student with overly verbose search terms, but overall I'm pleased with how student have done searching.

The second major problem is when students perform a reasonable Google search and after looking at one website and doing one search, they claim they can't find anything.  If this happens, I ask students what their original search terms were.  Then we discuss the merits and problems of those terms and if there could be better search terms.  Then we work on looking at several webpages or modifying the search terms.  But most of all we work on grit.  Grit simply means perseverance, stick-to-it-iveness, determination, etc.  More formally, according to Angela Duckworth, who popularized the term in a Ted talk, grit is "passion and perseverance for very long-term goals."  Using that definition, the passion comes from the students as they were able to select their topic.  The next part of the definition is perseverance and for some students, it must be taught.  Genius Hour is the perfect opportunity for students to learn grit because they are learning about something they are interested in.  Therefore, when they get stuck, they're much more likely to keep searching when they hit a wall.  Some students may need some help pushing through the wall, but once they're pushed they've been getting through, around, and over (or pick your favorite preposition) the wall.

The third major problem of Google is Google.  For the first research session, the ONLY resources students consulted were those that they found through Google searches.  This wasn't a problem for one period of work because students were becoming more familiar with their topic and gathering basic information.  However, one of the important lessons students should learn is that there are resources besides those online.  One of the requirements of my students' Genius Hour projects is that they consult an actual person who is an expert on their chosen topic. Usually this is done through email and this is important because students have to compose well-written and polite letters in order to ask someone else to help them.  Students are reaching way outside their comfort zones when they do this.  Doing a Google search is easy.  Emailing someone who is an expert is not easy or comfortable.  One of the thrilling things is how much help some experts have provided.  And if experts haven't provided very much help, I encourage students to write a follow-up email or consult other experts. Another source I am requiring students to consult is an actual book.  In expanding the realm of possible resources, I have seen tremendous growth among students.  Moreover, from using multiple types of sources, students learn that creating a project must have a broad-based foundation of information.

In the past six weeks, I've seen notable improvements in how students use online sources to learn more about their topics.  I've seen students more determined in learning about their topic.  I've seen students consult a wider variety of sources.  I've seen budding geniuses.

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