When Google Doesn’t Know the Answer

By Nicole Bell January 7th, 2014 at 2:00 PM

Any smartphone user who’s ever had a random question can sympathize with a familiar routine: curiosity, phone search, instant gratification, and boom – the mental effort is over. It’s quick, it’s simple, and it’s incredibly satisfying. But what do we do when Google doesn’t know the answer?

More and more, I see my students falling into the instant answer trap. They want to know the answer, and when they get it, they want to move on. When a student is told they got the answer right, you can almost audibly hear their brain click off and move on to the next thing, just like my own brain often does once I get an answer from my iPhone. Knowledge acquired, case closed, on to the next thought. We live in a speedy age, in which information is instantly available and instant processing can be valued. It can seem counterintuitive to students when teachers make them laboriously show their work and explain their reasoning – or even worse, tell them “there is no right answer” and then make them argue for what they think. This kind of thinking feels slow and awkward, and out of step with the way many students live their daily life.

It’s through this slow thinking that we answer our most important questions, though, even if at times it seems outdated. Google is great at telling me differentiation strategies, but can’t tell me what each of my unique students need. Neither can it tell students how to make the hard tradeoffs and decisions that are part of growing up. I believe one of the most important things I can do in my job as a teacher is push my students’ critical thinking skills – but that doesn’t make it any easier.

I’ve appreciated the professional development I’ve received on critical thinking, since I feel like it’s one of the hardest skills to teach. As a science teacher in a district that’s adopting the Next Generation Science Standards, this professional development has focused largely on inquiry thought processes. For example, at a recent DCPS event I had the opportunity to be trained in and receive a trial of an online inquiry program. Using the program, students form a hypothesis for an interesting question and then try to prove it using multimedia evidence. To see how it worked, I started to poke around the physics module (since it’s a subject I don’t teach). When I got one of the assessment questions wrong, I flipped back to the evidence pages to figure it out. I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that my first reaction to the article that popped up was “I have to read all this?? Can’t it just tell me the answer?” However, as I worked through it, I pieced together why I’d gotten that question wrong. I think that programs like this – that catch our kids with fascinating questions and then force them into difficult thinking – are a great way to slow down their thoughts in the ways that matter. Other professional development has focused on the same idea. Recently, a fellow DCPS teacher led an entire sample lesson about why candles burn. “Because they do” was rapidly replaced with a series of hands-on trials and slow, but productive, reasoning as we reconsidered things that we thought we “knew.”

I’ve noticed a similar trend even outside of the sciences. The math teacher next door to me has come up with a new way to lead students to value more than just the answers. He sometimes gives them quizzes that already have the answers on them – their job is to show the work needed to get there. While his students feel cheated that the most gratifying and straightforward part was taken away from them, it forces them to embrace the process instead of just hurrying past it to reach the end result. This teacher hangs the Common Core Standards for Mathematical Practice on his walls, and his favorite is the first: “Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.”

Teaching perseverance is hard, but it’s a prerequisite for lifelong learning. It’s an area of professional development that I think could use even more growth moving forward, especially as we become ever more reliant on instant answers elsewhere. In an era with so much speed and change, sometimes it’s the slow thinkers that we really need.

Nicole Bell teaches chemistry at Coolidge High School in Washington, DC.