Searching for the Ability to Think: Training our Kids to Go Past Google

Next week, my tenth graders will have to invent a new way to access the Internet. It doesn’t have to work, mind you, but it does have to include plausible technology. We’ve been doing this project eight years now.

The first time I saw the “tile” product that we now use to locate keys and phones, it was my student’s invention. I’ve seen smart basketballs that keep score, and smart jackets and pants that charge phones or that you try on and buy wearing a green-chroma key body suit. I’ve seen drones following a birthday boy around and taking pictures. I’ve even seen contact lenses that take photographs. But what I haven’t seen is kids Googling anything to help them with this project.

A video my student, Rebekah, created for the Invention Project. Her talent won her an internship with a company in Atlanta (she telecommuted as a sophomore and junior in high school.) She starts this fall as a freshman at Savannah College of Art and Design. 

Cathy Rubin in her Global Search for Education has posed these questions in my inbox for this month's global search for education column: “What should we teach young people in an age where Dr. Google has an answer for everything?” According to the Center for Curriculum Redesign (CCR) “We must deeply redesign curriculum to be relevant to the knowledge skills, character qualities, and met-learning students need in their lives.” If you had the power to change the school curriculum, what would you do? This blog post is my answer.

There’s a reason why this Invention project is a Google-free zone. One requirement is that if students have seen the technology in action, it’s disqualified from being the topic of their video — a commercial pretending that their invented technology actually exists.

Donnie Piercey's students use a backpack they created to update the Google Street view of their city and school.

This is just one of the many un-Googleable projects that I like to assign my students. Today’s students have come to depend upon Google as an external brain of sorts. They often take the first few search results as gospel and rarely look deeper. What’s the point of memorizing something when they can Google it? As our Internet search tools get closer and closer to our eyeglasses and contacts, we’re sure to see our dependence on them increase.

In previous centuries, students had to build their own Google. In other words, they learned and built their own knowledge base. To expand their knowledge, they had to assemble a library and know how to find books in it. The focus was on learning.

Now, it seems to be on finding. But it shouldn’t be. We need to teach people how to think.

5 Essential Ingredients for Teaching Thinking

What use is an Internet full of knowledge if no one can pick it up and harness it for good? I can have shingles popping off my roof and a hammer and nail sitting on my kitchen table, but if I don’t know how to get on the roof and hammer in that nail, my roof is going to leak.

Right now, we have leaky roofs when it comes to connecting, thinking, and acting on knowledge in different spaces. Many students see science, history, literature, technology, and math as totally different subjects without understanding the connections. If we want students to think, we need them to link the knowledge they find and understand the creative thought processes available within their own minds. I believe the following five things are essential to helping our students think and not just type in search keywords:

1- Complex real-world problems.

The student is programming a video game in a maker space using Bloxels.

Students should invent, create, and solve problems. Let’s take them out into the community to observe, consult, and brainstorm to make things better. If there’s a problem at school, let our in-house consultants (our students) tackle it with the advice of a great teacher.

When students meet a problem that they can’t Google, they must venture forth with teamwork, creativity, and tenacity — all things that they need to be successful. We let kids work problems in math. They should “work problems” in every course, because life is full of problems seeking solutions.

2 – Creative materials.

Classrooms need well-stocked maker spaces and creativity stations. Librarians like Micki Uppena and Chad Lehman are stocking everything from paper roller coasters and Mandala coloring books to green screens. Josh Stumpenhorst has students flying drones in his library.

Micki says green screen is one of the most important things for a modern library to have.

Micki Uppena says green screen is one of the most important things for a modern library to have.

3 – Space and time to create.

Today in class, we had some time for making and inventing. One group of students used Bloxels to create pixel characters for a video game. Another group learned how to fingerprint with a CSI fingerprinting kit. Others built robots or drove my Dash Wonderbot. We had students finding light reading apps for the solar eclipse, and another student let her imagination run wild with a cartoon creation kit.

Without the 30 minutes of “genius time,” these students wouldn’t have been able to explore and invent. Granted, I had some structure and guidance for this time. You can’t have teachers prop their feet up, say “play,” and expect kids to learn. Teachers are still needed in this process. But if students don’t have spaces to create, they won’t be able to use the creative materials.

4 – Empowering and guiding adults.

Chad Lehman's maker space includes challenges and lots of choices for students. Chad presents those choices to students so they aren't overwhelmed.

As teachers, we should watch and guide students as they explore and learn. Many times, real-world problems require teachers to play more of a consulting role. Incorporating real-world problems requires risk taking and ingenuity to flex each year’s curriculum.

You can’t standardize creativity, and therein lies a problem. Factory-like schools will get factory-like results with a pretty high failure rate. But individualizing teachers and schools can help each child reach his or her own potential.

Children are unique, so our approach to them must be unique as well.

5 – Willingness to relate even if it looks eccentric.


Great teachers are a different breed. Sarah Reed, a Kentucky State Teacher of the Year, described dressing like an endangered bumblebee for her students. When I asked how her colleagues felt about that, she said,

Sarah Reed dresses up to help kids want to save the Rusty Patch Bumblebee.

“I’m going to be a little eccentric because I’m here for the students, not for the adults.”

Too many educators are playing to the wrong audience. To reach kids, to truly empower and guide them, sometimes we have to risk looking odd. I’ve dressed like a zombie and done crazy things to relate to kids — if adults think I’m weird, I’m OK with that.

The Search Commences

It’s time for educators to start approaching school differently — and many of us already are.

In today’s world, we’re searching for answers to many problems. And those answers won’t be found in a Google search box. Only when some genius starts putting together all that knowledge will we start finding the novel solutions that the world really needs. Those answers won’t show up on Google because they haven’t been invented yet.

So the search commences.

It’s our mission to connect the human brain with all this knowledge in a way that will truly unleash the search inside every child to do good, seek the truth, and create a better way for the world to behave.

Maybe that will click.

Recently, I've begun using an awesome editor to help me on some of my biggest projects. While he doesn't like attention drawn to his work (he wants authors to shine), I want to give a shout out to Alan K. Lipton for his tremendous editing work on this piece.

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Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis is a full-time classroom teacher and IT Director in Georgia, USA. She is Mom of three, wife of one, and loves talking about the wise, transformational use of technology for teaching and doing good in the world. She hosts the 10 Minute Teacher Podcast which interviews teachers around the world about remarkable classroom practices to inspire and help teachers. Vicki focuses on what unites us -- a quest for truly remarkable life-changing teaching and learning. The goal of her work is to provide actionable, encouraging, relevant ideas for teachers that are grounded in the truth and shared with love. Vicki has been teaching since 2002 and blogging since 2005. Vicki has spoken around the world to inspire and help teachers reach their students. She is passionate about helping every child find purpose, passion, and meaning in life with a lifelong commitment to the joy and responsibility of learning. If you talk to Vicki for very long, she will encourage you to "Relate to Educate" or "innovate like a turtle" or to be "a remarkable teacher." She loves to talk to teachers who love their students and are trying to do their best. Twitter is her favorite place to share and she loves to make homemade sourdough bread and cinnamon rolls and enjoys running half marathons with her sisters. You can usually find her laughing with her students or digging into a book.

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The Cool Cat Teacher Blog
Vicki Davis writes The Cool Cat Teacher Blog for classroom teachers everywhere