Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Go Look It Up.

When I was a kid, "Go look it up" was a phrase used by parents or teachers who didn't want to "give the answer" to a child, but instead, wanted them to "learn something." It implied that a child would only learn something if they went through the motions of looking up the information, but they would NOT learn it if someone "gave" it to them.

Kind of funny, really, considering how much of "teaching" at that time was simply lecturing.

Somehow, spelling ended up one of those things that someone was supposed to go find for themselves. Except if it was on their spelling list, in which case, they were supposed to memorize it. If they forgot, then they had to go look it up, it couldn't be given to them a second time.

I guess there were rules for all that looking up.

Looking words up in the dictionary, or looking something up in an encyclopedia, were almost all the "looking up" opportunities to be had for young children. Assuming, of course, that they HAD a dictionary and encyclopedia. If they didn't, then they had to go to the library, which kept copies of those books, that people were not allowed to take home, because they needed to stay in the library, for all those trips people made there to look stuff up.  The library also kept a bunch of other "reference books" that a person could looks something up in, but those were not generally used by young children. I suppose the young ones were too busy looking up how to spell something, or using the encyclopedia to look up some subject in order to "write a report" on it.

Fast forward to today.

Things have changed.

Where "look it up" was previously a command given to children who asked questions, now it is an easy way for anyone to access just about any information about anything. Since the availability of resources no longer rests in the library, or even in a few books, but is, instead, the internet as the gateway to the information universe, it is easily available to almost everyone much of the time.

Much of the first world, anyhow, and to those who can afford the technology, anyway. For now, I want to look at that particular subset of people, rather than discuss why it is that it isn't, actually, universal. The following thoughts are about that population who does have access.

It started with search engines.
Then those improved.
Then there was Wikipedia. An "encyclopedia" that could easily and rapidly be edited and added to by anyone who cared to do so. No more waiting for some committee somewhere to decide what needed to be added, and then for them to write and edit and add. Which then immediately became out of date.

There are other collections of information, too, like the Internet Movie Database, or imdb. Plus, all sorts of other groups have started their own "wiki" for information about whatever it is that they are specifically concerned with.

There has been a veritable information explosion. The average person has access to more information in seconds than previous generations had in their lifetimes.

What to do, what to do, with all that information???

I can't speak for other people, but around here, we "look it up" all the time, in an ongoing way. We read newspapers online. We get directions to where we're going. We can find out a restaurant's hours and menu, and sometimes, even order before we leave home.

We look up words and concepts, find the text of documents that are hundreds of years old, and can look at pictures of practically anything in order to understand more about it or to find what we're interested in.

We look up actors and writers and plot points when we watch TV or movies. Find recipes while we're cooking.

And now, to make things even easier... most of what we read online has embedded links, so we don't even have to type in what we want to find out about... it's there with just one click.

The latest thing we've learned to do to get up-to-practically-the-second information on breaking news is to use social media.  News media find things out when they hear about them, and then they have to send someone there to look at it and report back. The people involved, however, are ALREADY THERE, and the information they have is raw, unfiltered, and in the moment. How accurate it is depends on the emotional content of the situation. Sometimes, they are much more accurate, having a first hand account, and other times, rumors fly fast when the stress level is high. Either way, you can get information before it is officially announced. You just have to learn how and where to look, and it helps to have a lot of contacts in different places.

No longer is "look it up" relegated to being a command from an adult to a child, and an avoidance of giving away the answer. It is a powerful, powerful tool available to bring information and ideas directly to a person much more rapidly than ever before. As people learn to use these tools, I hope they also continue to learn to use critical thinking in order to evaluate the information they find.

In fact, that might be the most useful part of all.
Someone who learns to evaluate the validity of ANY source of information, will make much better use of ALL of them.

So not only are we no longer limited to a few written resources, where children are sent to find things on their own, rather than being helped, we are moving away from the very idea that those resources are the definitive source of truth.

I think that's a good thing.

1 comment:

  1. What I love about learning as a way of life is that our 3 year old sees us rushing to the computer to look something up all the time--we'll be discussing something and have a disagreement or not know something and the first thing we say: "Let's look it up" or "Let's google it". Now he knows to do so as well, but its not in the punishing way that I always felt it from grownups when I was a kid; it's a resource. When the 13 year old can't figure out photosynthesis or krebs cycle or whatever, he can often find an explanation on youtube. Very cool.