The wikipedia gap

I wonder who the first teacher was who said to his class, "Okay, we have ball point pens now. No need to use class time to learn how to use a fountain pen."

I heard from two people this week (one is 11, the other twice that) who were forbidden to use Wikipedia to do homework.

When I was in b-school, I admit that I discovered a shortcut. I had to write a long paper on Castro. I went to the magnificent Stanford library, found a great book on Castro, opened to the bibliography and found ten sources. Which I then laboriously paged through, spending hours and hours in order to find the facts I needed.

Then, facts in hand, I was able to do the actually useful part… I synthesized some new ideas and wrote a paper.

Apparently, going through the act of finding the books, sorting through them, reading a lot of chaff and eventually finding the facts is an essential skill for an 11-year-old kid. And for a college sophomore. Essential enough to be responsible for 80% of the time they spend on the work itself?

Selecting the facts is an important part of the process. Finding them shouldn’t be.

I don’t know about you, but when I hire someone, or go to the doctor or the architect or an engineer, I could care less about how good they are at memorizing or looking up facts. I want them to be great at synthesizing ideas, the faster and more insightfully, the better.

Until just recently, law students had to learn a painstaking process to look up cases by hand. No longer. The academy realized that teaching students to be great at Lexis was a smart idea.

Please don’t tell me that Wikipedia isn’t a real encyclopedia or one that can’t be trusted. Perhaps it can’t be trusted if you’re prepping for a Presidential debate, but it is sure good enough to help me learn what I need to learn–which is how to quickly take a bunch of facts and turn them into a new and useful idea.

Here’s what just about every exam ought to be: "Use Firefox to find the information you need to answer this question:" And as the internet gets smarter, the questions are going to have to get harder. Which is a good thing.

Until teachers get unstuck, our kids are going to be stuck and so will we.