The 9th graders I just worked with are crafting a research paper. They had to select an area, come up with a question (so that their papers are not mere descriptions, they are actually examining a proposition), look for reliable resources (one of which had to be a book I cited) and thenwrite their papers. For a half hour or so each day, I was in the library with them. So they had me, and they had the shelves filled with books. But they could not run fast enough to get to their computers. Now that library has some excellent online resources, so they were not necessarily in the wild blue yonder. But they were totally at ease with search engines, and totally lost when they had to use a book. There was a connection between their comfort online and their dazed panic in using books: they have been experts at finding specific information, they are far less adept at finding, following, and considering an argument, a narrative, a point of view.
I am not saying this to critique the net, or kids, or how they learn. It is just an observation (one of the teachers actually pointed it out to me). Kids who use search engines every day for their own interests as well as for assignments have become excellent trackers. They can hunt down any detail, any date, any specific. But when told to look in a book, they look the same way. Where in the book is the exact phrase I want? Since an index won’t give that, they stand there lost, dazed, thumbing pages, not sure where or how to start. This is a caricature, and not true of all of the students, but it is based on life. The problem is not that kids don’t read books, it is that they have grown accustomed to reading non-fiction, at least, as if it were a database to be searched.
Now from what I hear, they had excellent class discussions of Race earlier that required a very different reading style. So perhaps the issue is not reading, it is researching. And the question is how to take kids who are far better at finding specifics than I ever was to realize that while that is an important subset of research, it is not the heart of it. Maybe kids have always been that way — wanting the specific fact that answers the question, until they begin to realize that the fact is the detail in a larger story. That is the big leap these net-trackers have to take, I’d be interested to hear from all of you any thoughts on how we can help them to take it.