by Prof. Jim Lengel, Boston University College of Communication (http://www.bu.edu/jlengel and http://www.lengel.net)
"No, that's not acceptable," insisted Mr. Ludd as Johnny turned in
his history homework. "They're supposed to be on notecards."
"These are notecards," replied Johnny. "Look, here are all the
notes I took on Lewis and Clark's trip up the Missouri River." Johnny had
more notes than anyone else in the class. They were clearly printed, came from
many original sources in the library and online, and evidenced a wide array
of information on the early explorations of the American West.
"No, I mean regular notecards. You know, three by five inches with blue
lines on them. And a red line at the top. Look at Susie's note cards. That's
what I mean."
Susie's six note cards, though smudged and bent and hard to read, were indeed
of the style that Mr. Ludd expected. "See how nicely she's written her
Susie smiled as she wiped the ink of her left index finger. "It was hard
work," she said, "copying all those words from the textbook and the
"And I am sure you learned all about Meriwether Lewis as you carefully
took your notes," beamed Mr. Ludd.
"Meriwether who?" questioned Susie.
This exchange took place in a classroom near you last week. It's a true story.
Johnny's work was unacceptable because it was done on a computer. In fact, both
Johnny and Susie spent about the same amount of time on this assignment. But
most of Susie's was spent in the low-level task of copying by hand sentences
from a textbook. Most of Johnny's time was spent learning about Lewis and Clark.
His notes were a combination of copy-and-paste quotations from his sources,
and his own typed summaries of what he had learned. Johnny, who has spent
several hours each day at the keyboard since he was six, can type faster than
Susie and Mr. Ludd and his parents put together.
But somehow, to Mr. Ludd and to many other educators, Johnny's work is not
seen as valuable as Susie's. Somehow, the computer makes it seem all too easy.
If gathering knowledge is not a struggle, they fear, then it will not be properly
But in today's world, the finding of information is not the struggle it used
to be. Nor is the recording and saving of information very difficult or time
consuming. Johnny, like many of his counterparts who grew up with computers,
have found much more efficient and effective ways to find what they need to
know and to record it on their own digital version of notecards.
What they lack are the intellectual tools to make sense out of all the data
they have collected. The struggle that should ensue in Mr. Ludd's classroom
is the wrestling with ideas, not the bending of notecards. Both Johnny and Susie
need to move beyond the easily observable facts about the expedition and into
the realm of comparison, contrast, and meaning. Back in the old days, these
realms were open only to the few with rich home libraries and lots of time to
gather the facts through reading, and the discipline to record them on notecards.
But today we have the opportunity, through networked digital information, to
accomplish the fact-gathering more quickly and more interestingly, with more
time left for analysis and evaluation.
But in order to take advantage of this opportunity, we need to change the rules
and the expectations in our classrooms and in our assignments. And we need to
teach some new skills. For Mr. Ludd's American History research assignment,
for instance, the new basic skills might include:
Finding information from a wide variety of sources. In the
old days, we could only expect students to access the books in the classroom
and in the library. So our expectations on breadth and depth and point-of-view
of sources were necessarily limited. And the use of original sources was almost
impossible. Today, the range available to a typical high school student from
school or from home is enormous. In fact, the student's problem is one of
making intelligent choices from an overabundance of sources.
Locating five different perspectives on the same event. This,
too, would have been difficult or impossible in the old days -- the books
in the library might provide at most two different perspectives on the passage
past Great Falls, and these both secondary sources. But Johnny today will
find dozens of perspectives on this event, many in their original voices,
some with images to make them clearer and more understandable.
Judging the quality of a source. Would a web site from the
American Indian Movement, or a book written by Thomas Jefferson, be a more
reliable source on the events covered by this research project? Or would a
diary written by one of the members of the expedition? Or Stephen Ambrose's
writings 200 years after the fact? When the sources were few, the students
seldom faced this problem of evaluation. But today this judgment-making is
a basic skill.
Knowing what's worth reading. And saving. Susie could be
expected to read all there was in the school library about the expedition
-- there wasn't much, and so she was not forced to decide what to choose or
what to copy. Johnny, on the other hand (or on the keyboard), was faced immediately
with a decision on which of the thousands of sources was appropriate to his
task and worth his while. And once studied, which parts to be noted or saved.
Rather than rant and rave over notecards, Mr. Ludd should be considering how
to work these new basic skills into his curriculum. These are not easy skills
to teach, nor are they simple to evaluate. But they are more fun and more valuable
and rewarding for both teacher and student.
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