Why Johnny Can’t Search – a Response

Image by Stephen Poff
Image by Stephen Poff

I just got my latest issue of Wired Magazine (Nov 2011). In “Why Johnny Can’t Search,” Clive Thompson writes:

We’re often told that young people tend to be the most tech savvy among us. But just how savvy are they? A group of researchers led by College of Charleston business professor Bing Pan tried to find out. Specifically, Pan wanted to know how skillful young folks are at online search. His team gathered a group of college students and asked them to look up the answers to a handful of questions. Perhaps not surprisingly, the students generally relied on the webpages at the top of Google’s results list.

But Pan pulled a trick: he changed the order of the results for some students. More often than not, those kids went for the bait and also used the (falsely) top-ranked pages. Pan grimly concluded that students aren’t assessing information sources on their own merit – they’re putting too much trust in machine.

Other studies have found the same thing: high school and college students may be “digital natives” but they’re wretched at searching. In a recent experiment at Northwestern, when 102 undergraduates were asked to do some research online, none went to the trouble of checking the author’s credentials. In 1955, we wondered why Johnny can’t read. Today the question is why can’t Johnny search?

Every day he walks into a sanitized information landscape with the expectation that anything he finds behind the school firewall is valid. How does that teach Johnny good digital hygiene?

If you spend any time around students, none of this comes as news. Given a research task, many go straight to Google and grab the first “low-hanging fruit” they find. Their inability to critically evaluate sources or context is more crucial as the barrier to the production and distribution of information has disappeared. (It doesn’t take much for any crank to start blogging the “true story of the Holocaust.”) While many applaud the digital revolution’s successful overthrow of the media gatekeepers, it does force us to become our own editors. (Should I forward the email that claims in next week’s sky, Mars will appear bigger than the moon?)

Many schools respond by sequestering students behind an information firewall. That allows school administrators to sleep at night knowing that students can’t get to any “bad information” during the school day. It’s a safe “CYA” for the educators, but it doesn’t provide any guided practice for Johnny to learn how to critically evaluate information. In fact, I think it sets Johnny up to fail in our “wild west” of information. Every day he walks into a sanitized information landscape with the expectation that anything he finds behind the school firewall is valid. How does that teach Johnny good digital hygiene?

Schools inhibit the development of critical evaluation skills in another way – the relentless (test prep) focus on mastery of facts. Johnny can assess the validity of information because he’s awash in a sea of text without context. Critically evaluating sources requires a deeper understanding of author and purpose. That’s developed with an inquiry-based approach to learning – exploring multiple sources, sussing out context, comparing perspectives, recognizing patterns, and encouraging constructive controversy and evaluation among peers. No time for that – we have to “cover” content for the test. In the relentless march to the exam, Johnny gets well acclimated to quickly stuffing his head with facts. No wonder he’s willing to take up Google on the bet that “I’m Feeling Lucky.”

Today’s student needs to become a critically-thinking citizen and the best response schools can come up with is to force-feed students in sanitized information feedlots.

It would seem that the demands of the information age would put a premium on teaching critical thinking skills. But the test regime leaves little time in the school day for that. Teaching information literacy is everyone’s (and no one’s) responsibility in school. (And I fear most of the librarians who were “fighting that good fight” didn’t survive the latest round of budget cuts.)

And isn’t this all so ironic. We live in an information age that puts a premium on the ability to find, decode, evaluate, store and communicate information. (All skills central to mastery of the Common Core standards). Today’s student should be in training to become a critically-thinking citizen and the best response schools can come up with is to force-feed students in sanitized information feedlots.

Image credit: flickr/Stephen Poff

20 Replies to “Why Johnny Can’t Search – a Response”

  1. Hi Melvin,
    Thanks for taking the time to comment. It’s great to know a post has connected with teachers. ~Peter

  2. Very true… I’d add one more point: Google often works really well. Often times the first thing is a great choice. In a sense, if Google really was terrible, our challenge would be easier. Google success makes things harder; we need to convince kids that it’s worth the time to do better than Google’s pretty good first pass.

    I wrote some stuff about the sillyness of filters in the Washington Post a couple years ago: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/07/10/AR2009071003459.html

  3. Justin,
    You wrote a great opinion piece in the Washington Post.
    I especially liked the line “Content filters are knee-high fences around the Internet: They may trip up older folks, but teens leap right over.”

  4. a.) You reiterate pretty much what the article in Wired said…but then…
    b.) you go on to blame the schools/teachers.
    Sorry; quite misleading. Some states require literacy classes in order to graduate, and are being launched throughout the country and in libraries.
    It’s true, teachers are teaching preparation for tests, mandated by the system and administrations…not the teachers who have for years been protesting the process, but have been unable to shake it.
    Many colleges now have critical thinking, creative innovation courses.
    Librarians have been trying to tell people; adults and kids, for years that there are problems with information found on the Internet…not the least of which is the misinformation found in Google Books, about the books and some of the garbled content.
    The book “the Filter Bubble” has been widely reviewed, but how many really have read it and found it to be perhaps the most important RED FLAG about information I’ve seen so far.
    Yes, it’s a problem, but don’t just blame schools and teachers…some blame belongs to the content providers.

    1. Hi Paul,

      Thanks for commenting. I agree that there are many efforts being made to teach critical evaluation of sources and yes, librarians are taking the forefront there.

      I’m sorry you had the impression that I was linking firewalls and standardized to teachers. I said schools (and administrators). In fact, I think that most of the innovation in education is driven by teachers. See my post Innovations in Teaching and Learning: Top Down or Bottom Up?

      As I said there “… the best innovation in instructional practice is coming from the “bottom up” – from teachers who find effective ways to harness the creative energy of their students. These teachers don’t simply deliver information to kids, they craft lessons where students can research, collaborate, and reflect on what they’re learning. They harness a flood of new platforms that enable students “see” information in new ways and support a more self-directed style of learning.”

  5. Thanks. Very timely as I am teaching my 7th graders website evaluation today!

    As a former university professor, my frustration was with teacher candidates who failed to evaluate websites and, when presented with slick sites supported by white supremacists and holocaust revisionists, would include in their brief summaries how they would definitely use these sites as resources for their future/current students. Adults in general need to take the lead.
    Everyone in this age…schools, parents, content providers, students….needs to take responsibility. Knock wikipedia all you want (not that YOU are) but I like its ability for community policing of information.

    Random thoughts as I carpool in traffic this morning…

  6. Jen,

    Thanks for your comments (I’m hoping you weren’t the driver….)
    I think bringing wikipedia and community policing of information is especially interesting. For all it’s detractors – wikipedia seems to do a great job of weeding out the junk.

  7. I listened to a podcast recently where the moderator made the point that members of the “born digital” generation don’t necessarily know how to create content like everyone assumes – they just know how to click things.
    Internet search engines are interesting tools, because there is something about them that causes people to equate use with mastery. Your average weekend motorcycle rider would never claim that they could go race with professionals and would never be offended if you implied that they couldn’t, but many average internet users would be offended if you said something to imply that they were not expert internet searchers and would often react as if you were questioning their intelligence. The internet has somehow made people forget that the ability to find and assess information are actual skills that don’t come to you automatically the first time you type something into Google and aren’t simply a matter of intelligence. The problem isn’t just that Johnny doesn’t know how to search. It’s that Johnny doesn’t know that he doesn’t know, and worse yet thinks he does know.

  8. Interesting observation Tom,
    Not knowing, what you don’t know, is not a good place to be.
    Rather than create unique content, many students are just re-posting content on their Tumblr sites. But “curation” takes critical thinking skills as well.

  9. Thank you for this. I’m presenting to department heads about bringing all students to the library in a couple of weeks, and I may use this to help show why this is necessary.

  10. Some great points in the article. In terms of teaching digital literacy, I would disagree (in a polite way!) with the comments that suggest we need info lit classes. This isn’t stuff that should be taught separately from the discipline, in the abstract so to speak. Digital fluency comes from critical analysis within the discipline. If I want to be a geographer, a teacher, a doctor, I need to be able to identify the veracity of information as it exists in that subject. If a teacher says that their students are rubbish at identifying good info then they need to model what it is that they do themselves to identify good info. Sending the students off to the library will not only cheese off the students (“Why do I have to do this class? I signed up to do geography, not library studies”) but really importantly, it will separate the concepts of being literate and being a geographer (teacher, doctor, etc). This is bad. You nail it, Peter, in one comment where you say that, “(good) teachers don’t simply deliver information to kids, they craft lessons where students can research, collaborate, and reflect on what they’re learning”.

  11. Thanks Nigel.
    And I think your observations about literacy within the discipline are right on target, as well.
    It’s too bad we don’t do a better job of giving students the experience of “behaving like a scientist .. etc.” Shouldn’t school be helping them understand how architects and engineers might look at the same building in different ways. Context and point of view is everything and it begins with searching out information.

  12. Thanks for this. I started teaching high school English courses after careers in management consulting and higher ed., and the Digital Natives are eager–desperate, even–to make sense of search, networking, curation, online security and other key 21st century literacies.
    [For example see HS seniors in video dialogue with Roy Christopher: http://bit.ly/s8BIvs%5D

  13. Hi David,
    Thanks for your comment. I agree with your observation of “desperate to make sense.” The idea of “digital natives” suggests that they are proficient in all things digital. I don’t think so. Perhaps we’ve left them to be “feral children” fending for themselves in the digital woods.

  14. Hi Peter –

    Many thanks for your commentary on a major issue in education in dire need of a spotlight. Many of us are addressing critical evaluation skills in school library/media lessons, but is it enough? Administrators are the ones who need to hear your message. I will do my best to pass it on.

    Take care,

    Sheila Hart Stafford, MSE, MLIS

    1. Sheila,
      You make a powerful point about the work of library/media lessons. Critical evaluation is important across the curriculum. I think everyone needs to pitch in on this effort. In addition, each disciple bring its own perspective to the task. Do scientists and artists research in the same way? Do historians and mathematicians look at information through the same lens?

      And I agree that the administrators need to be thinking about this – as well as school boards. You might like to steer them to this post “Nine Questions for Reflective School Reform Leaders

  15. In my experience, a majority of my students understand how to evaluate the sources; they just don’t want to take the time to look for the best ones. I teach high school, and they learn about evaluating sites much earlier in their education now. In the past couple of years, I had only had to review and reinforce their understandings of validity and reliability. This is the easy part. The hard part is figuring out how to motivate them to make the effort to conduct meaningful, thoughtful search. Even when I make it a part of their grade on an assignment, too many decide those points don’t matter to them. I’m trying to think of ways to incorporate peer-feedback related to the internet search/research process – maybe that will help?

    1. Sharon,

      Thanks for the comment.

      That’s an curious dynamic. It appears (in school) the goal of “finding” the information outweighs the time needed to assess it’s quality. I wonder if that would be the case if they were searching for information on something that was important to them? For example, a significant decision or purchase they were going to make?

      So while “a majority of my students understand how to evaluate the sources,” they are not heavily invested in the school assigned searches. Could be an interesting discussion to have with them – whether validity of information is relative to the task. Also might be a reason to consider how you can infuse more student choice (and therefore buy-in) into designing the tasks.

      Here’s a post I did that might be helpful – The Four Negotiables of Student Centered Learning

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