Googling is not Research.

This post was inspired by a Twitter discussion today.

When I was an NQT I was told “teacher talk is bad” and I had to ensure the students were “finding things out for themselves”. You can read about that tale of woe here… but at the time I believed it and included lots of what I believed was “discovery learning” in my pedagogy. This included hiding text around the room, giving half the students one half of the knowledge and the others the other half and playing “quiz-quiz-trade”. But mostly, because it was a computing lesson, they searched online for knowledge.

I started to suspect this was not highly effective when I asked them to find out about the family of cyberattacks called “social engineering”. I set the task “find the definition of social engineering”, expecting that after a few minutes they would write down something like “Social engineering is manipulating people into handing over confidential information such as a PIN or password. It includes blagging, phishing, pharming and shouldering.” But at least half of them wrote this:

Social engineeringĀ is a top-down effort to influence particular attitudesĀ and social behavioursĀ on a large scaleā€”most often undertaken by governments but also carried out by media, academia or private groupsā€”in order to produce desired characteristics in a target population.

Of course this is a valid definition, it’s just Wikipedia’s Social Engineering (political science) definition, not the information security definition. But even those that wrote the latter definition…

In the context of information security, social engineering is the psychological manipulation of people into performing actions or divulging confidential information.

…seemingly didn’t understand it when asked questions about it afterwards. The ten minutes they had spent searching and writing down a definition had been completely wasted.

This wasn’t an isolated incident, it was to be repeated many times until I decided never to allow unfettered googling and instead direct the students to particular websites.

Whenever I asked the students to google for some knowledge, what happened was they would spend time searching for a definition, sifting through the search results full of guff and ads, finding degree-level and industry-focused definitions that they don’t understand or definitions that fit an entirely different sense of the term being searched for, or that are relevant to a different context, then write them down, while all the time potentially being distracted by all the rest of the internet.

Each time I did this it would take around ten minutes just to “discover” one fact. Crucially, even if they stumbled on the right fact, or even later when I was directing their web “research”, they would not actually be digesting any information, they were just copying down what they found. Any cognitive load was all being expended on the technology, trying to find a relevant page and then when satisfied with that, just transferring words from screen to page.

No time was actually being spent thinking about the thing they were supposed to be finding out about. ā€œMemory is the residue of thoughtā€ as Daniel Willingham explained, so our aim should always to get students thinking hard about the subject knowledge that matters. Googling is largely a waste of time from that point of view as it requires little-to-no thought about the topic. The task has lots of extraneous cognitive load (the searching and sifting of results) but little germane load (thinking about the topic, e.g. social engineering).

Nowadays I either provide the websites to access, or the textbooks to read. But more often I tell them what they need to know in a couple of minutes, check for understanding, then set a task with which they apply their newly-gained knowledge to a task.

Instead of ten minutes googling for “social engineering”, I will explain what it is, ask some questions to check they understood the basics, then set some work such as “are these scenarios social engineering?” or “research this cyberattack, which social engineering tasks can you spot?”. The same ten minutes they once spent googling, is now spent on highly-valuable activities with “desirable difficulty” that will help transfer the new learning into long-term memory.

Say after me: googling is not research.


By mraharrisoncs

Freelance consultant, teacher and author, professional development lead for the NCCE, CAS Master Teacher, Computer Science lecturer.

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