Dumber may be too strong of a word. But it does seem as if Google and social media are changing the way we think.

Perhaps the bigger question?

Is that a good or bad thing?

It’s not a new question. Way back in 2007, Mashable author Stan Schroeder highlighted his concerns with Google:

It will be interesting to see how this – if it keeps up, and my bet is that it will – will affect our ability to think in the future.

Carr expanded his thinking a bit in a book titled Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.

In 2008, Atlantic Monthly author Nicolas Carr shared his concerns about how the web was changing the way we think:

. . . media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation.

In 2011, Adam Clark Estes suggested that

we’re not necessarily losing our ability to remember things. Rather, the internet is changing how we remember. Ars Technica sums up the results nicely, “People are recalling information less, and instead can remember where to find the information they have forgotten.”

A more recent article at Salon has re-opened the can of worms and starts by saying that “we’re hooked on easy answers and undervalue asking good questions.” Author Ian Leslie concludes by stating that:

the Internet has the potential to be the greatest tool for intellectual exploration ever invented, but only if it is treated as a complement to our talent for inquiry rather than a replacement for it. In a world awash in ready-made answers, the ability to pose difficult, even unanswerable questions is more important than ever.

So what does this mean for us? Is Google making our students dumber? Should we care?

I’m gonna agree with the research. I mean, they’re scientists. You gotta trust the data. But even the anecdotal evidence is pretty strong. How many of you have seen the sort of behaviors discussed in the articles?

Should we care? Short answer . . . yes.

Leslie does a good job of explaining why.

In school, students are generally expected to answer questions rather than ask them. But educational researchers have found that students learn better when they’re gently directed towards the lacunae in their knowledge, allowing their questions to bubble up through the gaps.

That’s why changes in how we are expected to teach and are kids are expected learn are so important. It’s no longer just a matter of making sure our students can remember and recall specific data. What they do with that data should be the focus of our instruction.

Our state standards in Kansas. The NCSS College, Career, and Civic Life standards. Resources and lessons influenced by the likes of Sam Wineburg and Bruce Lesh. All are encouraging us to find ways for kids to think deeply about facts, about what those facts tell us, about what those facts mean, about why those facts are important.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who talks about “un-googleable questions.” But that phrase needs to be inserted into every conversation you have about lesson plans and unit design.

One of the things I often share with teachers is the concept of data, information, and knowledge. It’s a basic three step process to designing your instruction. Data is the basic facts – the foundational knowledge of social studies. Dates. Places. People. Events.

Information is what that data looks like when we organize it into specific patterns that make sense to use. Using a History Frame tool is a good example of this.

Knowledge happens when we and our students try to figure out what those patterns can tell us. This is the end result of gathering and organizing data. We can now see relationships and make predictions and solve problems.

There’s nothing wrong with using Google and the web to help gather the data or even to help organize that data into patterns. But it’s that last piece – deciding what those patterns can tell us, what we can learn from the patterns that is the real goal of the lesson. That’s the end in mind.

Google will often ask us:

Did you mean . . . ?

It never seems to say:

I don’t know. What do you think?

Is the web making us dumber? Perhaps. But the solution to that problem is a great social studies teacher asking a great question. One that Google can’t answer.