Everyday in my middle school language arts class, we open the hour by doing a warm-up activity that consists of some quick grammar exercises and cursive writing. On the Smartboard, I post an inspirational quote for the students to copy onto their paper in cursive. The name of the speaker of the quote also appears on the screen and one day recently a student asked me, “Who was William James anyway?”
Since we do this activity daily, we copy many quotes and sometimes, to be honest, they can come from some fairly obscure people from all walks of life, living and dead. I told the student I had looked up the name on my phone earlier, but I had since then forgotten what I had learned. It hadn’t been the first time that some Googled information had escaped me, so I rolled my eyes, and reached for my phone to look it up again.
After letting my students know that many consider William James the father of American psychology, I told my students, “I’m tired of forgetting things that I look up on the Internet.” And then, as my captive listeners quietly continued honing their cursive, I attempted to theorize aloud (it’s my classroom, after all) the reason why I couldn’t remember who William James was.
And here’s what I came up with: because there was no true search to discover his identity. In fewer than sixty seconds, I was able to Google the name and then, thanks to two or three websites or documents, gain a brief cursory knowledge of the psychologist.
Then I relayed to my students that today’s learning “process” is so vastly different from how it was before the Internet. I followed that by telling them in my best “back-in-the-day” voice, that finding the answer to the question used to involve a visit to my bookcase where I would hope to find an entry in an encyclopedia. If no luck there, then it would necessitate a visit to the library, a 15-minute drive away. Once there, I would again hope to find the answer somewhere within those walls . . . in the stacks, the card catalog, or maybe the computerized system known as ERIC, which didn’t really provide answers so much as places to find answers. I even recounted to my students the time I phoned the Atlanta, Georgia Police Department to locate up-to-date burglary statistics for an article about home security systems I was writing for a glossy Atlanta lifestyle magazine.
In other words, I attempted to show my students that before the Internet there was an actual, honest-to-goodness search involved when one needed to learn. Digging. Page-turning. Jotting. Re-reading. Checking. Now that was a search. Today, all that investigative, thrill-of-the-hunt searching is a thing of the past. As a result, I now surmise that the information I learned was retained because real effort and time (not to mention gasoline) were spent in those searches back then.
So what, my students ask? If you forget, you can just look it up again.
“True,” I reply. After all, why remember anything when there’s nothing at stake in forgetting?