Teaching the Google Generation

Teaching the Google Generation

A few years ago I was lucky enough to attend a conference that was hosted at Google’s offices in Mountain View. At one point we were led on a tour of the major buildings.  In the lobby of one, gigantic flat-screens were suspended from the ceiling, flashing odd terms that scrolled upward quickly and disappeared, like a Star Wars intro.

Not listening to what the tour guide was saying, I was instead staring at the screen trying to figure out what it represented. After a short while I realized I was watching, in real time, the searches that people around the world were performing in Google at that very moment(1).

It’s difficult to describe how I felt as I stood there taking it in.  Here was a crystal ball with a view directly into the concerns, hopes, practical needs, entertainment quests, and self-education of, essentially, the entire human race. A microcosm of human life on earth. To state the obvious, such a thing was not possible when I was born.

***

What is the impact of a tool this magical on the mind? Because surely something this powerful and all-embracing begins to shape the people who use it, just as much as it is shaped by them. The full impact is, no doubt, vast and deep and, to be clear, beyond my scope in this piece. I intend to explore just one small part of this question: the impact of Google and technologies like Google on the learning ecosystem.

Because Google is, at this point, inextricably embedded in what it means for most people in the developed world to learn, whether formally or informally.  What sights should I see when I’m in Barcelona?  Google it.  How do I manage a team through market convulsions?  Google it.  Were philosophical ideas at the core of or coincident with the outset of the American Revolution?  Google it.  How do I assemble this shoe-rack?  Google it(2).

How has the centrality of Google to our everyday learning experience changed the process of educating young learners, the cohort who have never really lived in a world without Google and whom some call the Google Generation?

I Googled that but didn’t find a fulfilling answer so I’m going to try to come up with one of my own.

***

When I was a student, answers to questions came from three sources: people whom we knew, trial and error, and libraries. We peppered our parents, siblings, teachers, friends’ parents, baseball coaches, and sometimes, random people we met here and there, for insight into matters that were important to us.  Sometimes, like Calvin’s father, people led us astray, but mostly we broadened our experience and knowledge of the world, and became comfortable having productive dialogue with those who were wiser than we.  We tinkered, like Feynman with his radios, breaking stereos, Legos, tree limbs, our limbs, and heirlooms and eventually became confident in using our hands and wits to figure things out. But most of all, we learned how to use the library card catalog to track down, among so many million books that have been written by enlightened minds over the past three thousand years, the two or three that would guide us – if we were prepared to put in the time to read them front to back – to the understanding we coveted.

What all of these mechanisms for learning had in common was that they involved a process, in most cases a substantial and prolonged process.

Once when I was in middle school I interviewed a friend of my father’s for a paper I was writing on the Vietnam War.  I called him at a prearranged time.  He said hello. I said hello. And then I said something like, “How did the violence and trauma you experienced in Vietnam change your relationship with your family?”  Needless to say, the call did not go well, and eventually, after a follow-up conversation with my father, I came to understand that learning from other people is not a matter of throwing a brutal question at them out of the blue, but of working together over time through gradual dialogue to build shared trust and a shared context. Once that’s achieved, you can, perhaps, ask cutting questions. Or not. You shouldn’t really need to by that point, because by building a proper intellectual relationship you’ve likely already learned what’s most important.

I experienced similar wake-up moments in my relationship with tinkering and with libraries as well. The first paper I wrote in college, for instance, for a class on Cicero’s letters, was based on a few excerpts I found in a couple of scholarly monographs in the college library.  I cobbled together those excerpts, added my overarching thoughts, and submitted what I assumed would be a brilliant piece of work. For my pains I received not only my first college fail, but some admirably frank comments from my professor.  It turns out some of the monographs I had used were in fact quite old-fashioned and highly discredited by then, and therefore my thesis was essentially ridiculous. I never again made the mistake of flipping through a couple of books to look for gems.  Instead, I committed myself to what you’re supposed to do in college: read painstakingly through pretty much all of the definitive works in your area of study to make sure you understand the entire context and competing points of view, followed by an informed laser focus on a handful of works that carry forward your specific insight with rigor and nuance(3).

Learning is a practice, I came to understand through these and other such experiences during my formal education years. Learning is not a point, not a quick retrieval, not a search and click.  Learning is a mission of building mental structures that allow you to place information in its full context.

But that is not how Google works(4), and since Google is enmeshed in pretty much all of our activities, that isn’t how we work anymore, much of the time.  Google gives us a magic shortcut, straight into the heart of just about anything. When I was young, figuring out what it felt like to be a soldier in battle in ancient Greece took quite some time: you had to read through at least a few introductory books, then follow up some of the citations, and read those books, and eventually you would have pieced together the vision you were looking for.  Today, you can put the keywords into Google and immediately get twenty or so hits that take you directly to paragraphs within various websites and books that address your question head on. By reading a few of them, you will have a reasonably broad baseline answer within no more than ten minutes.

Let’s pause to acknowledge that this is extraordinary.  The knowledge of the world is now truly at our fingertips. A thousand libraries of Alexandria in one little white box in a browser. Amazing.

But also, no doubt, incomplete.

***

A few years ago, at a dinner party, a friend of mine (let’s call her Jane) was gushing about the potential of MOOCs to transform education. This was around the beginning of the hype curve for MOOCs, so I presume that similar conversations were being had at the time at lots of dinner parties populated by folks from the education industry.  My friend was making a passionate case for why MOOCs are transformative: they can be accessed nearly anywhere, they connect ordinary people with the finest minds in the world, they empower self-learning.

Another friend of mine (let’s call him Kevin) listened, thought about it for a bit, and then responded that he knew of an older technology that accomplished pretty much the same thing: it enabled the knowledge of the finest minds in the world to be dispersed just about anywhere to reach pretty much anyone, empowered self-learning, inspired the young, and so on.  Jane asked what this technology was called, and he replied, “BOOCs.”

***

This was probably not a very nice response, but I do think it’s an important one. The fact is, after all, that books are high up on the list of the most powerful and transformative technologies that mankind has invented, responsible as much as anything else for the richness and persistence of human culture.

But what is the core technology of books?  It’s not the paper and the binding, but the birds-eye, linear, accretive structure that they impose upon inherently non-directional knowledge.

Truth, it’s important to remember, is not neatly organized into tables of contents.  How one should behave to be a good person, for instance, is a question that people have been trying to answer for the entirety of recorded history. So broad and contradictory are the visions that various cultures have come up with that the only thing about ethics that is incontrovertibly clear is that nothing else is incontrovertibly clear. There is no natural organization of the subcomponents of ethics; no natural sequence of steps one must take to become an ethical person; no natural landscape within which different systems of ethics neatly border each other.

The illusion that we have that ethics is an elegantly structured activity – that the geometry of a good life can be expressed as a journey of discovery, or organized around fundamental and numbered maxims, or splayed out like an anatomical dissection of the soul – comes to us in no small part because wise people have forced their amorphous thinking about life into the tight, invariably linear structure of books. Books have forced mankind to turn abstract intuitions into concrete paths.

***

If that reads like a defense of the publishing industry, I can live with that.  It is, after all, the industry to which I devoted a good chunk of my adult life, and it’s pleasant to think that it’s still an important part of the Good Fight. But I mean it more as a defense of structured learning, of learning as a process of walking down paths in a wood rather than jetting in and out of aerotropolises.

After all, if the “path” has been the basic paradigm of learning since the first scribe, or whoever, in ancient Egypt, or wherever, wrote out from beginning to logical end the first proto-textbook for his apprentices, then it’s been largely responsible for everything that the human race has accomplished, which is (in my eyes) a lot.  So it’s reasonable to believe that the “path” should still be a governing paradigm for learning in the 21st century.

***

If you accept that argument, then it should be no trouble to convince you that we need more than Google even for the Google Generation. Aside from and counterbalancing the instant direct access to atomized knowledge that Google gives the world, we still need a universal commitment to developing structured, linear bodies of knowledge that learners can immerse themselves in.

No one is more aware of this, I believe, than the folks at Google.  Look at how the search engine actually works. Google’s search results prioritize information that is published in highly respected, highly cited, and highly structured journals or books over contextless nuggets that are flung into cyberspace randomly. Google understands that they are a tool to reach the world of structured knowledge, not a disintermediation of it.

But does the Google Generation?

***

If there is one urgent challenge that those of us in the educational content industry face as we near the end of the first quarter of this century, it is to help bridge the Google Generation – while accepting and affirming all of their multi-tasking, multi-channel, multi-valent, multi-verse cyberhabits that are so different from our own – into a deep relationship with the abstract ghost of the learning “paths” that we encountered in very concrete form in our books.

Because the format doesn’t matter in the long run. I rarely read physical books anymore (sorry, colleagues!) because I find iBooks and Kindle books and Google Play books so convenient, and while I do miss the smell and feel of books I rarely think about it: I get from the ebooks what I’m really looking for, which is to have my mental world reshaped and revitalized.  And in fact for much of what I’m trying to learn, professionally as well as personally, I don’t read any kind of books . . . I assemble various resources from cyberspace that I find through my online research into structured sequences that guide me into a good understanding of some new field.  I can do this because I have spent so much of my life having that done on my behalf by authors of the books I read that I have developed an ability to create that architecture by myself, for myself.  I consume content in a medium that is well beyond the concept of the book, but the ghost of the book still lurks behind my method of consuming it.

This is the ability that we must give to today’s young learners.  We must not fight against the way that Google and other such technologies have reshaped their physical method of accessing information, but ensure that we equip them with the right conceptual method of assimilating it. We must use their own tools to launch them into the timeless structures of knowledge, must help them kneel down to see the “real toads” that hop around somewhere within Google and Facebook’s imaginary garden.

***

I want to be clear that I am not a Google skeptic.  In fact, I’m a Google addict. The phrase “change the world” is thrown around quite frequently these days as an ambition by the founders of tech start-ups. But it rarely happens. In the trip to Mountain View I mention at the start of this piece at one moment I briefly met one of the two founders of Google (I won’t identify him so as not to seem to name-drop, but it wasn’t Sergey Brin). I’m not often speechless, but at that moment I was: here was a man who, truly, has changed the world, and decisively for the better.

I’m a believer in the power of technology to improve just about every individual aspect of human development: health, mindfulness, expertise, knowledge, curiosity, and so on(5).  For each of us as individuals looking to leap forward in our capabilities as far as we can, technology is in our world today the force multiplier par excellence.

But that promise can only be cashed in if we think critically about the role of technology in our activities, if we insist on making room in our world for the painstaking, elaborate, rigorous intellectual infrastructure over which our technologies zip like Teslas. For those of us in education, this means that while we must radically reinvent and re-envision where we gallop to remain relevant in the Wild West we find ourselves in today, we have to stay saddled up on the same core values we rode in on.

As we reinvent the textbooks of yesterday as bite-sized interactive learning experiences tomorrow, we have to make sure that even the smallest nugget of learning requires students to comprehend and apply, rather than just memorize.  The danger of a bite-sized education is a reduction of techniques to tactics, of skills to short-cuts.

As we redirect curriculum away from the fixed canons of yesterday to the student-centric explorations of tomorrow, we have to make sure that even if like games they are non-deterministic also like games the environments within which students learn have an implicit and universal architecture – a lay of the land, a set of rules, a point system – that keeps them moving steadily towards a state of intellectual maturity.  The danger of an amorphous education is a reduction of freedom to vertigo.

As we reverse instruction from yesterday’s “sage-on-a-stage” to tomorrow’s collaborative paradigms of social learning and the “flipped classroom,” we have to make sure that the platforms they use produce in students a healthy understanding of how to contextualize other people’s opinions and writing (rather than taking them at face value) and how to modulate their own(6). The danger of an uninhibited education is a reduction of dialogue to self-expression.

There’s no single way to live up to these ideals, to marry cutting edge technologies with timeless teaching. I have my own thoughts on how to do this that have been implemented in various products in my groups over the years: a visual framework of taxonomic learning objectives to organize thousands of bite-sized study aids, outline builders that map complex subjects into simple blueprints, a social ratings system that allows learners to quickly assess the value and objectivity of the ideas contributed to the community by their peers. These have helped us build strong and lasting relationships with our customers, and I hope that they continue to.

But other companies will have different approaches, and they are just valid. Over time, all of our ideas will be sifted out by the marketplace to yield the new normal, the Holy Grail: education for the 21st century.

What’s important is not that we as a community commit to following the exact same thread in the labyrinth, but that each of us follows some thread that leads all the way out, that we stay true to core values. To the persistence in the world of real hopping toads, long after we are gone.

Footnotes

  1. Yes, so far as I could tell, it was filtered.
  2. Even with a good video, actually, it turns out this is difficult.
  3. Well, mostly I committed myself to that.
  4. Actually Google itself does work that way . . . as is well known, the search engine analyzes a massive number of websites with a highly complex algorithm. But we tend to use the search engine in a considerably less robust manner.
  5. I’m a little less certain of the power of technology to improve communal aspects of human life, but that’s a different conversation for a different day.
  6. This wouldn’t be bad in politics, either.

This post is part of our contributor series. The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily shared by TNW.

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