Transformational Six

1.    Did the assignment build capacity for critical thinking on the web?

2.    Did the assignment develop new lines of inquiry?

3.    Are there opportunities for students to make their thinking visible?

4.    Are there opportunities to broaden the perspective of the conversation with authentic audiences from around the world?

5.    Is there an opportunity for students to create a contribution (purposeful work)?

6.    Does the assignment demo “best in the world” examples of content and skill?

1. Did the assignment build capacity for critical thinking on the web?
The concept of the “digital native” knowing a lot more than the “digital immigrants” is largely a myth. If you have ever watched a student research on the web you will probably observe that they enter the exact title of their homework for their search query. They will only look at the front page of results (even out of millions). There is no thought to use a second or third search tool.

An example: a student types in the name of the assignment, “Iranian hostage crisis” into Google. The results list of this search will only yield search results with Western sources if the search is anywhere in North America. The reason for this is that Google knows the geographic location of your network. If you are searching from North America you will not see any sources from Iran in the top page of search results. (For a discussion on improving students’ search skills centered on this example, see my previous article on the subject.)

Critical thinking and careful evaluation of the reliability of sources is sorely lacking. Basically, we have a major mess on our hands. To make it worse, our students do not know that they do not know. If they knew their true ignorance, then they would ask their teachers for help in designing searches. But when was the last time any student asked a teacher for help in designing a search? Perhaps more importantly, when was the last time a teacher offered to help? If our students fail at step one—selecting the right information—then they will automatically fail at critical analysis.

While it would be convenient to imagine that we can just teach students to learn about advanced search techniques and inquiry design in one orientation session in the library, as we do with the Dewey Decimal System, that will not be sufficient. Many students have a very difficult time of transferring knowledge from one setting to another. We need all of our teachers to recognize the critical and essential role they play in preparing students to be web literate. This needs to happen at the point of giving an assignment across the curriculum and beginning when we teach students to read.

2. Did the assignment develop new lines of inquiry?
With access to massive amounts of information and different points of view and access to primary sources comes an opportunity to teach students to ask questions we could never ask in the limited world of paper.

In an interview I had with Stephan Wolfram, a chief designer of the knowledge engine, Wolframalpha, he explains that most of the answers asked by traditional assignments are on the web if you know how to find them. What is not on the web are the questions. One of the most important skills is to teach our students how to ask the creative, innovative and even impossible questions. “The new answers are the creative questions.”

(Next page: Using digital recording tools and connecting with others around the world)