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Building critical thinking: Students are not learning how to think, they are learning how to Google

How can we, as educators, encourage students to think critically about anything when they have a world of information a click away.

A 1:1 world

With the increase of schools that are becoming a 1:1 setting, where every child has access to a laptop, Chromebook, Ipad, or cell phone, students are able to type in a question and receive an answer within seconds. Why should they bother to analyze, gather data, or, for that matter, critically think to solve a problem or understand the why behind it? I am not opposed to technology-it is, after all, a helpful tool in its own right. Rather, as a teacher, I am finding that students no longer take the time to discover the connections between a question and its answer.   

The shortcut

Towards the end of this past school year, my son developed strep throat. I sat at home the night before and thought, “what can I leave my students to do that will be relevant and helpful in passing the state exam?”

 As a chemistry teacher, I had, years prior, created a reference sheet scavenger hunt. The state supplies students with reference sheets that supplies formulas, a periodic table, and information a student may need to know, but not necessarily have to memorize, in order to work through questions asked on the state final exam.  

My scavenger hunt was made with 25 questions; all of the answers and formulas needed to answer those questions are found within these reference sheets. I use this during exam review to refamiliarize students with information they will need to answer questions on the exam that we may not have looked at since the beginning of the semester. Perfect! Well.. not so much. This was the day I started to really think as an educator we are doing a disservice to our students.

The next day, I came in early to see how the students had done.  I was in shock.  One of the questions that I had asked was: “If sodium nitrate reacts with calcium sulfate, what type of reaction is this considered?”  Several students had written, “metathesis.” While this is correct, that word is found nowhere on our reference sheets.  The state uses the term “double replacement.”  

When the students came in that day, I asked them if they had googled the answers. The answer was a resounding “yes,” and I asked them, “Why would you google the answers when the answers are on your reference sheet?” The answer: “It was easier to just type the question in and get an answer than to look through the reference sheet.”

If we can teach students to ask higher level questions, then they will be more likely to answer a higher level question.  

Higher level thinking questions push conceptual understanding

Everyone in education knows all about Bloom’s taxonomy.  We don’t want students to define, list, or recall. We want students to be able to create, design, discuss and, yes, solve problems. The problem isn’t that we are not asking questions.  The problem lies in the questions we are asking. If a teacher simply asks a yes or no question, where does the critical thinking come in? Students look at this type of questioning and already have their mind set that they have a 50/50 shot of getting it right. We need to go beyond the “yes or no” question in order for students to gain the conceptual understanding. If you marked yes, and the answer was no, can you tell me why the answer is wrong?  

“If kids can Google the answer to your question…it’s probably a wasted question” – Danny Steele

If we, as teachers, are having a hard time coming up with questions that ensure our students are having to think critically,  imagine how the students feel about answering those questions.  It is time to put accountability in the hands of the learner.  Have the students ask the questions.  But I know what you are thinking: “how can a student ask a higher level question if they don’t understand the concept?”

Here’s a story from my class: Recently, I gave my Honors Chemistry class an inquiry lab on Ionic and Covalent compounds. They had to do several different mini experiments and come up with the conclusion based on their data as to whether the compounds they tested where ionic or covalent.  

After the lab was done, I had a student come up to me with the correct classifications, but she said she was confused as to why.  I stated, “You have the right answers, what was your thought process as to why you categorized them as ionic or covalent?” She said, “I googled them, but I don’t know why.”

This student, along with more than half the class, had decided that they would work backwards; find the answers on google, then put the characteristics of each compound as the why behind their decision.  The problem isn’t that she googled the answer, so much as the lack of connecting the data to the answer which is the purpose of any lab investigation.  

In order to make the connection,  one needs to use critical thinking. I put the accountability back into the students hands by asking the student questions that would lead her to the answers. What type of elements are the compounds made up of? What are the charges of those ions? How would that affect the melting point? She then started to ask questions about something she learned in AP Biology and the strengths of bonds, and I got excited to hear her make connections to another class through higher level thinking.

Teaching Students to ask their own questions

In the book “Launch” by John Spencer and A.J. Juliani, the authors talk about the Anastasis Academy in Denver, Colorado where students ask their own questions. Michelle Baldwin, a teacher at the academy states the following:

“You cannot empower students to be self-directed, responsible, critical-thinking people if they can’t ask their own questions.  At that point, you’re teaching compliance rather than responsibility.”

These words are the most profound in education to me.  We are trying to create successful students who will become successful citizens, and yet our educational environment is structured so that students are bound by the curriculum and objectives that the state sees fit that we teach.  

Teachers often say we have no time to deviate from our pacing guides. We have no time to be creative and go beyond what is expected. We expect our students to adapt to our environment when really, we should be adapting to theirs. I say, though, we do have time to be creative. One day at school after returning from a snow day, a student asked my why we treat the roads with salt prior to a snowstorm (or flake as is typical in our county).  I started to answer the question but then stopped myself.  I ran to my chemical closet, pulled out sodium chloride, set up some beakers with ice and thermometers and said, “You tell me.” The discussion and thinking that went on in that classroom gave me hope.  Now I know not every teacher has a chemical closet or ice handy.  But my point is: instead of just telling students the answers, make them think, formulate, and solve their own questions.  

Last time I looked, Google was not on my class list. My mother always says: There is a time and place for everything. As educators, we should want students to discuss, not google. We should want students to learn, not to copy and paste. Together we can ask questions that will lead us to the answer. In the future, the answers to any question in my class, I will assure you, cannot be found on Google.  It is, after all…a wasted question.

Kimberly Mawhiney

Kimberly Mawhiney teaches science at Currituck County High School. She is a Kenan Fellow alumni and a NC Hope Street Group Fellow for 2017-19.