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If they can Google it, why do they need you?


I’ve spent the last couple of months working with teachers as they unpack the new Kansas state history / government standards. And I’m still loving it. What better way to spend a summer than hanging out with other history geeks, discussing and, yes . . . sometimes, arguing about history stuff.

I will admit, I may not be enjoying it so much two months from now but today? Yup, it’s still a good time.

Much of the discussion and arguing as been about the balance between content and process. If you’ve followed the epic tale of how the new standards were created, you are well aware that the document encourages the importance of the historical thinking process. The old standards paid lip service to the idea of process –

compares contrasting descriptions of the same event in United States history to understand how people differ in their interpretations of historical events.

but in a lot of ways, it was a document focused on all of the things that kids grow up hating about history – long lists of people, places, and events. So we’ve talked about what content, how much content, what processes, how can we teach the processes without ignoring foundational knowledge, you get the idea. And during a summer training, sitting around a table drinking Diet Pepsi, it can seem a bit unreal.

But school starts soon. And when you’ve got a room full of 13 year olds staring you in the face, it becomes all too real. So . . . my advice?

Ask better questions.

Sure . . . you’ll want to provide opportunities to help them think historically and understand how to go about answering the question. Provide scaffolding and support with tools, websites, and resources. Maybe even a bit of direct instruction.

And then . . . step out of the way. Let them struggle. Don’t give them the answer. Cause they’ll ask. The system has trained them to expect us to give them the answer. Hang in there and let ’em dangle a bit.

We simply can’t give them the answers anymore. Marco Torres once asked a room full of social studies teachers to describe their curriculum and instruction. After hearing long lists of dates and places and people and events, he came back with another question:

If I can Google everything you just said, what value are you adding to the learning that takes place in your classroom?

At the recent 2013 ISTE conference, Will Richardson asked a similar question:

I’m a big advocate of open phone tests. If we’re asking questions kids can answer on their phones, why are we asking the questions?


The questions we should be asking need to be “un-Googleable.” Things like:

  • What really happened in Boston on March 5, 1770?
  • Was dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima the humane or inhumane thing to do?
  • What is the best form of government?
  • Were African Americans really free following the US Civil War?
  • What is the best balance between state and federal power?
  • What does a “More Perfect” union mean?
  • Is it ever okay to violate the Bill of Rights?
  • What is the solution to the dropping water table in Western Kansas?
  • Should the local county commission allow energy companies to drill fracking wells within county boundaries?
  • How much influence does the environment have on historical events?
  • What name should be given to the federal land contested by General Custer’s 7th Calvary and the combined forces of Lakota, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes in June 1876?

Kids can’t Google these. They can’t use Siri. They can’t use print or online encyclopedias. They’re gonna have to think historically.

You’ll probably never find the perfect balance between content and process. But asking great questions is a great place to start. The value you bring to learning is designing the learning that happens around these questions and the historical thinking processes that you teach your kids.

What question will you start the year with?

21 Comments Post a comment
  1. You are wrong. Students can Google all of those questions. Have you tried Googling them? Choosing your question about the more perfect union, Google served up this as the first result:

    August 9, 2013
    • glennw #

      Interesting. But what if my definition of “perfect” and “union” are different than yours? Or different than this simple definition? Perfect for whom? What sort of union? How will we know when it’s perfect?

      A problem with this online answer is that it seems to be talking about the period before and during Revolutionary War yet the phrase – “in order to form a more perfect union” – is in the preamble to the Constitution, a document created after the war. This sort of canned answer is “googleable” but it doesn’t answer the question in the context of my class.

      You may be missing the point and I may not be making my intent entirely clear. I want students to work on solving questions and problems that have many possible answers and solutions. Asking a kid when the Constitution was created is very different that asking them about the intended meaning of the Preamble. The first is factual and googleable in the sense that a right answer (1787) can be found online or by asking Siri. The second . . . not so much. Especially if part of the process is that they must provide proof supporting their particular opinion.

      I can also ask Siri to tell me the causes of the US Civil War and get an answer (slavery, states rights, economics). But if I ask Siri to tell me which cause was the most influential and why, it’s gonna struggle. Especially if I ask it to answer the question as a Virginian slave owner, or a newly arrived Irish immigrant, or a poor Mississippi farmer, or a Radical Republican or a historian looking at the events from 2013. This is the sort of thinking I’m talking about. This is what I want kids to be able to do.

      This is the value that a good social studies teacher brings to the process. Great questions and the facilitation skills needed to engage kids in that process.

      Thanks for the comment!


      August 10, 2013
  2. “Ungoogleable” questions are the shorthand we started using with our teachers and students to help them understand better what a higher order question looks like. We’ve talked a lot about these over the years and it’s a concept so simple, but which captures the imaginations of pretty much every teacher that hears about it. Here are two quick “next steps” pages we wrote to support them:

    August 10, 2013
    • glennw #

      Sweet. I like the idea of having kids create the two categories of questions and then using the Googleable set as the basis for gathering foundational knowledge.

      Thanks for sharing!

      (BTW – love your website design. Looks like you guys are doing some awesome stuff.)


      August 10, 2013
  3. crossons #

    Reblogged this on My Wired Life and commented:
    I was so excited to see this post from HistoryTech. First, it is interesting to read about his state’s new social studies standards, as we have also just gone through that.
    I am a to read absolutely thrilled to read about the “un-Googleable” questions! Selfishly, it’s wonderful to have another voice in this conversation. As a parent, this helps me back up my requests. As a content developer, this gives me strength to write these types of questions into the content we deliver. Thank you, Glenn!

    August 11, 2013
    • glennw #

      Glad you found the post useful! I think writing great questions is sometimes this easiest part of being a social studies teachers. The devil is in the details and organizing the instructional / learning activities can be difficult. But starting with the questions has to be the first step.

      Good luck as you continue your work! And thanks for the comment!


      August 11, 2013
  4. Aren’t a lot of your questions more suited to a philosophy class? It reminds me of a class I took during the Viet Nam War. The teacher had us all sit in a circle or square or whatever and ‘Rap’ about our feelings and thoughts on the war. It was all fine and dandy and I found out all about what my fellow students felt about the war. In retrospect I feel that my guide at the side teacher did us a disservice. I didn’t pick up many of the nuts and bolts of the discipline but I got an A in rapping.

    August 14, 2013
    • glennw #


      Great question! Answer? Yes and no. The questions are fairly broad and if all kids did was to sit around and discuss how they “feel” about the question, then yeah . . . not very useful. But the questions should be used to both design instruction and plan assessments.

      If I start kids off with a question such as:
      Is it ever okay to violate the Bill of Rights?

      and then ask them to research both the internment of Japanese citizens during WWII or something like the Patriot Act enacted several years ago, look at primary source documents, have several sessions of direct instruction, etc than the question is not just something that they have feelings about. They have to create an answer to the question based on evidence.

      So it all depends on how the teacher in the classroom sets up the instruction and learning. Sitting in a circle – no. Kids doing active research, analyzing primary sources, developing arguments based on evidence – yes.

      Thanks for the comment. And congrats on the A!


      August 14, 2013
      • This is a great response and points to what I think is so exciting – development of critical thinking skills, and what I perceive as the important point of your post. I recollect a class I took in Mesoamerican Archaeology once. It was complete fill-in the blank, multiple guess, the typical stuff you can Google today. The class pretty much bombed except for one young woman who got a near perfect score. The prof was convinced that the woman was the person who studied and everyone else were slackards. So, in the class where he turned back the tests, he asked the woman with the near perfect score to explain to the class how she studied, thinking he would be vindicated from the need to curve the test or whatever. The woman shocked the prof by saying it was not that she learned anything or really understood the material but that she was blessed with a photographic memory and that she had not studied at all for the test. A humorous story now some 25 years later, but instructive to the point of the blog post. So what if we can spit out the right answers if we don’t understand or know how to apply them!

        Thanks. Great post.

        August 15, 2013
      • glennw #

        Great story! Curious how the prof responded! And there are tons of similar stories that I hear all the time. What we’ve always done in schools never really worked. (see

        My daughter is like the woman you mention. She’s a perfect player for the current way the game of school is being played. She can remember everything and does great on multiple choice / matching / etc. Of course, being her dad, I also know she’s pretty bright in other ways too!

        But when teachers tell us that she’s smart, I take it with a grain of salt. Because “smart” for the game of school is not the same as being smart for the game of life. And that scares me a bit. Because I know she’ll need more than great memorizing skills once she gets into the real world. And being her dad, I believe she does possess some of those necessary survival life skills. But what about kids who may not have similar advantages and skills? We are doing serious damage to kids when we believe that what we did in the past (drill and kill data) actually worked and when we continue to do the same thing.

        We just need to keep doing what we can to chip away at ingrained beliefs!

        Thanks for the comment!


        August 15, 2013
  5. Reblogged this on Indiana Jen and commented:
    A great article about the role of readily available information on the web and the classroom. With content so easy to find, let’s get them to figure out what they need to *do* with that information!

    August 15, 2013
  6. Really great article! Thanks for sharing. When talk about the world we are preparing our students for, we must recognize that they have a wealth of data and information. What we need to teach them is not a repository of facts, but how to shift through a glut of information and use that material in creative, meaningful, and innovative ways.

    August 15, 2013
    • glennw #


      I agree! But it can be hard for teachers to shift how they see their job. We have been so trained to be the experts in everything – to provide the answers – that it can be difficult to see another way of doing our jobs.

      Sifting information may be the best skill we can teach kids!

      Thanks for the comment!


      August 15, 2013
  7. laurakspencer #

    Reblogged this on ed tech in ten and commented:
    Google is a powerful tool for information gathering. So why are we requiring students to memorize and regurgitate information they can easily Google? We need to require higher level thinking and synthesis of information. We also need to teach students how to validate the information they do find on Google – the top response does not automatically equal truth.

    August 16, 2013

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. If they can Google it, why do they need you? @glen… | EducatorAl's Tweets
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  7. Sweet Googleness: Google tools, tips, tricks | History Tech

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