by Jamie McKenzie
With the explosion of home access to the Web, we are looking at a "New HomeWork." Given the lag between home access (for the affluent) and school access in many places, schools must consider ways to help parents help students make profitable use of this home access. This article may be duplicated in hard copy format free by schools for use with parents. All other duplication is prohibited without permission.
The Internet is deceptively easy. You can log on pretty much automatically. You can find information without much trouble at all. Finding truth is quite another matter.
This is a great opportunity to support your children, helping them to identify reliable sources, notice bias, resist propaganda and develop their own independent ideas based upon research.
If you raise your children on a steady diet of Internet information well leavened with lessons on how to browse, sort, sift, cull and synthesize, you will see a tremendous pay-off as they pass through school and into the job market.
Using the Internet as a learning tool requires a substantial degree of independence and ingenuity. Because of the rich assortment of electronic information online, there is no need for cumbersome, hard copy, print encyclopedias to support home research.
The days of highly digested information sources and spoon-feeding are over. We expect that young people will learn to graze through a much wider and richer variety of sources as they seek answers to questions. At the same time, we must recognize that navigating and exploring these resources will require a new set of thinking and problem-solving skills.
While some schools have already noticed this shift and have begun teaching students how to cope with info-glut, info-garbage and info-tactics, there are still many who have done little to address the challenge. In most cases, your children will need you to show them the way.
In this article, we offer a dozen activities you might enjoy exploring with your daughter or son.
1. The Question is the answer
Explanation: The better your children are at generating questions, the more capable they will be when building answers. In the old research, teachers provided questions while students searched for answers. In an Information Age students must create their own answers out of a puzzling world. The most important tool for building answers, ironically, is questioning. The more thorough and thoughtful the questions posed before and during the research, the greater the chance that the investigation will lead to insight.
Begin with a choice your family is about to make. Let's say your family wants to buy a new car or a new TV. Maybe you are thinking of a vacation.
Before you jump onto the Internet and begin your search for information, challenge your child to think of as many questions as possible while you type them or write them down. Questions beget questions. They are like families. For most important questions, you can easily list a hundred or more subsidiary questions, many of which can be grouped by category. In the case of a new car, questions might group under cost , performance , styling options , etc.
Once you have a healthy list of questions, keep your list open so you can enter relevant findings as you encounter them. Your child learns the importance of planning before researching. In addition, the act of searching becomes more structured as the skills of note-taking are introduced - note-taking which is channeled by the questions posed. When children are quite young, the parent can do most of the typing. As they reach upper elementary and middle school, they should be performing most of this questioning and note-taking themselves.
2. Whose page is this?
Rationale: Many of the sites on the Internet are promotional in some sense. They are often there to sell an idea or a product. Young people need to learn how to identify the company, the organization, the special interest group or the person who published the information they are reading. Then they need to ask whether or not they have an ax to grind or a bias to promote.
Decide with your child a controversial topic such as the "spotted owl" and then use one of the search engines such as AltaVista (http://www.altavista.digital.com/) or Hotbot (http://www.hotbot.com) to find a list of a dozen or more sites which include information about your issue.
Open each site and then ask your son or daughter to identify the sponsor or author of the site. In many cases this will be quite a challenge as the promoters and sponsors are often interested in maintaining a low profile.
Ask your child if they can see any reason the author or the sponsor might have to twist the facts or engage in any propaganda.
Make sure your child knows the meaning of "propaganda" and some of its tricks such as "partial truths," appeals to emotion and fear, exaggeration, stereotyping, and references to authority. Point out examples as you encounter them.
Ask your child to rate each site for bias - as "high," "medium" or "low." To what extent does each site provide reliable information on the topic?.
3. Are there any facts here?
Rationale: Because many sites are more interested in persuasion than education, you will often find facts and information lacking. Since our goal is to show young ones how to make up their own minds, they need to find sites which provide the raw materials, not pages of someone else's insights and opinions.
Make certain your child knows the difference between fact and opinion.
Repeat the process used in "Whose page is this?" to identify a dozen sites treating some controversial issue.
Print out pages from each of the sites and then take turns with a yellow underlining pen identifying facts on those pages.
Challenge your child to rate the "fact content" of each site just as the labels on food products now tell us the "fat content" of foods. Is it high, medium or low?
4. What's worth keeping?
Rationale: We have moved from an information-poor world to an information-rich society. Unfortunately, not all that glitters is truth. We must teach our young ones to sort and sift carefully through the mountains of information, weighing carefully which ideas and which facts are most relevant to our original questions. It used to be that longer was better. Now we will see a shift to quality information and quality reasoning.
Print out pages from several sites which relate to your research question - vacation resorts in Maine near the beach, for example.
Questions posed early in the search help determine which information is worth keeping. If you had five categories of questions about Maine vacation spots, for example, (the cost, the weather, the recreational opportunities, the local history and the scenery), provide a different colored marker for each category.
Take turns with each color. Give your son or daughter the color for recreation, for example, and let them hunt through the information until they find something good.
Before underlining any information, each player points it out and explains why they selected it. This gives you a chance to check your child's reasoning and share your own.
You and your child are laying the groundwork for the next activity which calls for saving information electronically.
5. Finders - keepers
Rationale: Information in electronic forms is much easier to store and organize for later review than printed material. As much as possible we want our children to know how to take notes electronically, cutting and pasting when appropriate, paraphrasing when desirable. The information will be more valuable later on if it sits within the computer rather than being buried in a hundred pages of printed material.
Show your children how to take notes using a word processor if they are young beginners or with a database program if they are old enough and computer skilled.
Set up either the word processor or the database with sections or fields within which you will be entering your findings. For the vacation exercise, for example, you may create a standard form for each resort which looks like this:
Paste the standard form as many times as you think you will need for the number of resorts you will review. If you are using a database program, you would simply create fields for each category.
Starting with your first resort, try filling in important information for each category. Model the first one as a team. See if your child can do some without assistance.
6. Needle in the haystack
Rationale: Sometimes we may need to find a very specific piece of information such as the temperature of a city we plan to visit the next day. Efficiency is paramount. We want our children to learn how to locate such discrete "correct answers" with a minimum of wheel spinning and time wasting. We also want them to understand the difference between finding an answer on the one hand and building an answer on the other hand.
Brainstorm with your child a list of 20-30 questions like the temperature question above which have correct and exact answers. What is the population of Seattle? China? How fast did the winner of the Atlanta Olympic marathon run? Make sure your questions come from a broad cross section of topics.
Compete against your own time records. How quickly can you find the answer to each of these questions? Keep track.
The choice of strategy should change with the topic and the category. You may want to use search engines for some questions and indexes for others. You may find that certain questions are especially appropriate for an online information service. Just make sure your child joins in the strategizing. Where do we start and why?
Look for patterns in your success stories. Try to build those patterns into theories which will serve you and your child well on future searches.
7. Diamonds and rust
Rationale: Not all findings are equally valuable. Some are real gems. Diamonds, perhaps. They evoke an "AHA!" reaction. They are so startling and full of significance that they may create an avalanche of meaning, an explosion of insight or a burst of illumination. Others are pretty ordinary and uninspiring. These findings may be ho-hum-drum and out-of-date. Rust.
Your child needs to keep an eye and a mind open for the gems. It is all too easy to miss the special findings while grinding away collecting, collecting, collecting.
Pick a category such as "famous people from history."
Create a list of "targets" (i.e., Susan B. Anthony, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, etc.)
Take turns looking for startling insights about each person. Given 15 minutes on the Net, what's the most important and startling insight you can find about your person?
As each person reports their findings, they explain why they selected the information they are sharing, why it is more important than anything else they found.
8. Forever young
Rationale: Your children will make more productive use of their time if they can identify sites which were created with them in mind. Because many sites on the Internet are developed for an adult audience, reading levels are often quite demanding. Content can be very technical. Just because the site mentions the "tropical rain forest" doesn't mean your ten year old will be able to understand the substance or gather information and ideas which will contribute to understanding.
Unlike the public library, there is no clearly separate "children's section" on the Internet, yet, although many commentators and organizations have called for some such virtual separation of materials. Teach your children to start with lists of sites already identified as "kids sites," employ a "kids" search engine such as Yahooligans , or skip over frustrating adult sites when they encounter them and keep moving until they find appropriate pages.
Using two different search engines, one for adults and one that is kid-oriented such as Yahooligans (http://www.yahooligans.com/), conduct a search on each for an interesting "kid" topic such as "endangered species" or some sport that your child follows or enjoys.
Visit two or three sites with your child in order to find examples to fit the following difficulty ratings:
Once you have agreed upon these ratings and your child feels ready to apply them, visit the top ten sites produced by each search engine and rate the reading level and difficulty of each site.
Compare the results for Yahooligans with the adult search engine. Which did a better job?
Return to the "hit list" of the adult search engine and see if it would have been possible to rate difficulty just from the content listed on the "hit list" without wasting the time to open and visit each site. Your goal is to strengthen your child's ability to make such choices independently.
9. The Answer is "Blowing in the Wind"
Rationale: Children need some experience with puzzling questions whose answers may be "blowing in the wind" as the famous Bob Dylan song reminds us . . .
How many years can a mountain exist
before it's washed to the sea?
And how many years can some people exist
before they're allowed to be free?
The most interesting and most important questions in life often prove the most challenging. In some respects they may be unanswerable. Even though convincing, complete answers may be elusive and unobtainable, the questions remain central to human existence. Often these are dilemmas, paradoxes, conundrums, mysteries and puzzles which have inspired playwrights, poets and songwriters for thousands of years.
Children are born with a knack for asking such unanswerable questions, but they are too often trained to suppress them by adults who have little patience for such questions.
"How big is the sky?"
"Why do so many people shoot at other people?"
"Why do so many people take drugs?
Nurture this questioning talent in your child. Capture and then explore together some of these questions using the Internet. It will prove invaluable and satisfying.
Spend some time making a list of unanswerable questions with your child. See how many each of you can contribute. Give several examples to help start the list.
"Why are some people dishonest and others extremely honest?"
"When is the next earthquake likely to strike near here?"
"How far does the Universe extend? What's on the other side?"
After you have 15-20 unanswerable questions, pick one to explore together. How would you begin to gain some understanding? Where would you look together? Remember that the goal is to build plausible guesses or theories. The research is intended to "cast light upon" or illuminate the issue or question, not identify final answers.
10. Five hundred miles. . .
Rationale: Children need to learn that discovery often requires persistence. For generations raised on the instant gratification of modern media, this can be a difficult lesson to learn. "I want the answer and I want it NOW!" Unfortunately, the focus upon trivial pursuits and questions requiring simple factual answers has fostered a "fast fact" mentality akin to the "fast food" mentality which expects neatly packaged answers delivered hot and fresh at a drive up window.
How many of our children have the persistence to build a model plane or a model cathedral with hundreds of small pieces which can only be put together if one READs the DIRECTIONs? How many can build a complex idea over the period of several days or weeks?
Children must learn to "go the distance." The ability to stick with a tough thinking or learning task over time will give your child an important advantage in school and later on in life.
Ask your child to identify a topic or a subject which they might enjoy "tracking" or following for several months. It might be a baseball team, a celebrity, a serious disease in search of a cure, a National Park policy on airplane flights in the Grand Canyon - anything so long as the interest level is high.
Take advantage of the "personal page" function of Internet news sites such as the New York Times or MSNBC to search for breaking news on this topic daily. Or use one of the ALERT programs available to seek out certain topics or stories.
Create a storage area on your computer where you and your son or daughter can save all of the articles and information you can find.
The collection of information may start as a general, "grab bag" process, but as the files build over time, major questions and categories will start to emerge which will guide you in setting up sub folders and directories.
It is important to do some of this collecting as a team, but you should also make certain that your child will take personal responsibility for monitoring the topic. When working as a team, you can coach your child toward deeper understandings by elevating the questioning process, by probing and looking for connections with previous findings, by challenging your child to identify patterns, trends and relationships.
"How does this latest development change the team's chances for the pennant?"
"If you were manager, what would you do now?"
"What would you predict about the next week or so?"
With time and due diligence, your child is gradually becoming an expert in a subject. She or he is learning to appreciate the benefits of learning something in great depth over time. Learning in depth is a lost art that you and your child can rediscover.
11. Look before you leap
Rationale: Sometimes the best way to find good information on the Internet is to keep an eye on lists announcing the coolest and best sites, whether they appear in newspaper Net columns, one of the monthly Internet magazines or a Web site like Yahoo or Netscape. Children need to learn the advantage of (sometimes) heeding the suggestions of experts and scouts.
Check out the local newspaper to see whether they have a special Internet column. Test recommended sites with your child. Are the suggestions any good? Is this a source you each might want to follow on a regular basis?
Subscribe to one of the monthly Internet magazines such as Internet World (http://www.internetworld.com). Check out the "hot sites" together and see whether the tips are worthwhile.
Go to a search engine and type in "site of the day" and then visit a half dozen of these sites to see which ones might be worth bookmarking.
12. So what?
Rationale: New information technologies make it very easy to gather information, but when will your child learn to digest and synthesize such findings? It is important to challenge him or her to distill, summarize and cull the findings until a clear picture emerges. Can they develop insight and make sense from all the information?
Children at the end of elementary school on up should be able to create a product or a presentation or letter of support which summarizes and reports their findings. Challenge your child to put their findings into a presentation of some kind. If you have been trying to decide upon a vacation destination, for example, encourage them to create a multi media presentation which "builds the case" for their choice, sharing photographs, maps and text in support of their preference. The same approach can be used for nearly any choice you have been researching.
If you take the time to work with your child on browsing, sorting, sifting, culling and synthesizing, you will lay the foundation for a lifetime of fruitful exploration. You will establish the basis for their employing the Internet as a powerful tool for making meaning. Your investment will encourage the development of independence and ingenuity.
Some of the best work I have seen in guiding schools to work with families has been created by Debbie Abilock at The Nueva School in California, whose AUP was an imporant inspiration for Bellingham's Internet Board policy.
Check out her useful site:
Choose the best engine for your purpose
A chart which helps you to select an Internet search engine to your research purpose and situation. This list points out the features - strengths and weaknesses - of each search engine so that the searcher optimizes the time spent and the results gained.
Debbie also offers several wonderful pages of advice to students who are planning research projects:
For a great source of ideas about research skills Visit the Info Zone in Canada.
For an online course about searching with the Web visit Sink or Swim: Internet Search Tools & Techniques.
"Searching the Web requires devising a strategy" : an excellent article by school librarian Joyce Valenza in the Tech.Life section of the online Philadelphia Inquirer.