A student asked me that question today in my geometry class. Apparently she had an ultrasound scheduled for the afternoon and needed to drink 4 quarts of water beforehand. Fun. Anyway, she held up a water bottle with the little note from the school nurse verifying that the drink was, in fact, water, and that she could, in fact, consume it in class. I asked her how many ounces the bottle held (20, for anyone who cares), and then told the class that there were 8 fluid ounces in a cup.
This being a math class, I then asked the $64,000 question, "So how many does she need to drink?" Silly, naive, me, I expected a few students to at least have a handle on English liquid measures and unit conversions. Sigh. One particularly bright student offered to Google it. Another started looking for units conversions on his TI-83, cursing his parents for not buying him the TI-89.
Suffice to say, once the flurry of attempted electronic activity died down, I led them through the incredibly trivial calculations required to determine just how many bottles this poor girl needed to drink. Of course, the answer came out as a mixed number, much to their chagrin. They felt better after another flurry of electronic activity converted the mixed number to a decimal. UGH.
The point, not surprisingly, is that an extraordinary number of students seem to have lost their ability to retain information (e.g., basic conversion factors) and/or to think somewhat critically to even formulate a solution for such a problem. This class was actually a fairly bright group, but just naturally assumed that technology could provide the solution to an apparently insurmountable problem. This hardly bodes well for the crop of kids we're sending off to college in the next couple of weeks. How will they problem solve? How will they find answers to questions that haven't already been answered and elevated to the first few hits on Google?
Do us all a favor and talk back below. How have you used technology to actually enhance original thought recently? What problems have you given them to solve with some sort of hardware and/or software for which they couldn't simply look up the answer? Some open-ended assignments using Scratch recently have been pretty successful for me as students really had to break out the logic and reasoning skills. How about you?