Sunday, March 13, 2016

Learning: The only thing that limits our reality is our perceptions of reality.

The other night my 10-year-old daughter and I were going over her history homework. She loves history! Ever a curious mind, she was excited to learn about ancient China and all the dynasties, their traditions, their beliefs vs ours - it's been a blast. Her homework this night was to look at the map of ancient China and identify the present day countries that were a part of ancient China. We looked through the maps in her textbook and couldn't find an appropriate map to help us answer the question. I quickly whipped out my phone and said, "Oh let's check Google". Immediately my daughter said, "No, that's cheating!" Why is that cheating? If we were to go to the library to look through encyclopedias, it would not be considered cheating, but rather, good use of our resources. I'm concerned that students' and teachers' perception of Googling it is cheating and not looked upon as a global Encyclopedia. Where do these perceptions come from? Often, they come from ignorance and fear. We don't really understand the World Wide Web and all the information it feeds us and we are used to deferring learning to figures of authority. We see people who have studied and researched in prestigious universities as bastions of knowledge and to some degree they are, just  not the only ones.

My mother's best friend is married to a tour guide in the Yucatan Peninsula of Southern Mexico. He is of Mayan descent and grew up in a village where Mayan language and culture were dominant. Alfonso now offers guided tours through his successful eco-friendly tourist company, Eco Turismo Yucatan.  His business was inspired by knowledge handed down to him from his ancestors and from his family traditions. All his knowledge on Mayan history has been self-taught through his own investigation and study. Today, he leads many professors through the jungles of what used to be the territory of the Mayan Civilization.

Today, in our global encyclopedia, the internet, Alfonso could share his wealth of knowledge with the world through Wikipedia if he chose. Whereas before, he would not be able to share his first-hand knowledge through an established encyclopedia since he is not a published researcher through an academic institution. The idea that true knowledge and fact must come from an academic institution is a Western belief and tradition. In traditional communities, information was learned as an apprentice with the established griot of the community or medicine man or woman. The internet today is leveling this playing field for us. Many critique Wikipedia because anyone can contribute information to the online encyclopedia. Yet, a now often referenced study done by Nature compared articles from Brittanica and Wikipedia. They found a series of factual errors, omissions or misleading statements. In the end, Wikipedia had 162 such problems, and Britannica had 123. The fact that both had errors is not surprising, it is that there was such minimal difference between them. In fact, when the Encyclopedia Britannica was published, the information was immediately dated and in the process of becoming obsolete. Today, Britannica has decided to no longer publish print editions of their encyclopedias, and instead offer an online version much like Wikipedia.

Our children are growing up in a world where knowledge is easily accessible and they can be contributors to this global body of knowledge. It's already here; this is not a futuristic idea, it's a reality, and the only thing that limits our reality is our perceptions of reality. Our assessments no longer have to be measures of rote information and factual knowledge. Instead of finding and creating more tools to limit students' access to the internet during tests, we need to change the way we assess students and their learning.  For teachers who are afraid that their students will just "Google" the answer, my response is always the same - If you can Google the answer, then it's not a good question.

My daughter's homework left me wondering...Is it really important to know which countries surrounded ancient China or is it more important to ask how those countries influenced ancient China and vice-versa, and how do these influences show up in present day society? I hope students do Google the information they'll need to answer this question effectively and then come up with an original idea as to how it impacts present day society.

We finished the homework that night, using Google and her textbook to help her identify the answers to the workbook questions. Then we had a great discussion on Confucianism, comparing and contrasting their beliefs to our family's belief systems. We decided we definitely liked Confucius' respect of elders and their wisdom - some things never change!