Friday, May 26, 2017

And what about Google...?

As an un-looked for sequel to the previous post, "What if I don't want Facebook to decide what I see & which friends I hear from?," this past weekend I came across "You Still Need Your Brain," a piece by Daniel T. Willingham that questions over-reliance on Google, especially in the learning process (New York Time SundayReview, 5/20/2017).

In my post about Facebook, I shared Farhad Manjoo's "Social Insecurity: Can Facebook Fix Its Own Worst Bug?" (New York Times Magazine, 4/30/17). The kicker for that post read:
Facebook's News Feed uses algorithms to choose which stories we see and in what order, based on who posted them, who among our "friends" reacted to them, and how much they mesh with the "preferences" we signal by our own clicks. Is this what we want?

In "You Still Need Your Brain," Willingham cites Jonathan Rochelle, the director of Google’s education apps group, who
said last year at an industry conference that he “cannot answer” why his children should learn the quadratic equation. He wonders why they cannot “ask Google.” If Mr. Rochelle cannot answer his children, I can.
Willingham writes that "Google is good at finding information, but the brain beats it in two essential ways."

Champions of Google underestimate how much the meaning of words and sentences changes with context....
With the right knowledge in memory, your brain deftly puts words in context. Consider “Trisha spilled her coffee.” When followed by the sentence “Dan jumped up to get a rag,” the brain instantly highlights one aspect of the meaning of “spill” — spills make a mess.
Had the second sentence been “Dan jumped up to get her more,” you would have thought instead of the fact that “spill” means Trisha had less of something. Still another aspect of meaning would come to mind had you read, “Dan jumped up, howling in pain.”

The meaning of “spill” depends on context, but dictionaries, including internet dictionaries, necessarily offer context-free meanings.
Students have always been able to look up the quadratic equation rather than memorize it, but opening a new browser tab takes moments.... Yet “moments” is still much slower than the brain operates.

Speed matters when the quadratic equation is part of a larger problem. Imagine solving 397,394 x 9 if you hadn’t memorized the multiplication table.... That’s why the National Mathematics Advisory Panel listed “quick and effortless recall of facts” as one essential of math education.

Speed matters for reading, too. Researchers report that readers need to know at least 95 percent of the words in a text for comfortable absorption. Pausing to find a word definition is disruptive.... 

Deeper knowledge of words also helps. Your knowledge of what a word means, how it’s spelled and how it sounds are actually separate in the brain.... Good readers have reliable, speedy connections among the brain representations of spelling, sound and meaning. Speed matters because it allows other important work — for example, puzzling out the meaning of phrases — to proceed.
So what do I use Google for?

Williamson does value Google as a search tool, yet he advocates properly selective use rather than use as a substitute for memory.
The brain beats the internet when it comes to context and speed, but the internet clobbers the brain when it comes to volume. You can find any fact on the internet, even alternative ones. Your brain, in contrast, is limited, so how should we choose what to learn?
Students should learn the information for which the internet is a poor substitute. Getting information from the internet takes time, so they should memorize facts that are needed fast and frequently. Elementary math facts and the sounds of letters are obvious choices, but any information that is needed with high frequency is a candidate — in algebra, that’s the quadratic equation.

Image Source & Notes

Image: "Your Brain on Google," from "Smarter than you think: How technology is changing our minds for the better," on the blog Chris Dorman, life as a techno-geek (9/10/2015).
See also "Your Brain On Google," by Chandler, on the blog The Curved Road: My Reality Check Has Bounced (7/15/2011).
Image: "The Quadratic Formula...," from Mrs. Smith's Webpage: Algebra I (4/17/2015).

Daniel T. Willingham is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and the author, most recently, of The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads.

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