Wednesday, September 02, 2009

9/2/09 The Dictionary

Today, Gabriel's homework assignment included looking up two words in a "children's dictionary," out of a set of words provided.

Dave had pointed Gabriel to an online child's dictionary in preparation yesterday, since we don't have a "child's dictionary." (I wish the teachers wouldn't spring this stuff on us when we need to turn in homework every day. "Binder paper" was another basic supply we needed one night with no warning. This is the Google age -- who has binder paper around?)

But I didn't know about the online child's dictionary when I got Gabriel started on his homework tonight before Dave got home. Gabriel wanted to go to the computer, but I said No, and plunked a regular Webster's in front of him. Was I being too anal, too retro, too purist?

My doubts were immediately answered when I saw him open the dictionary. It hadn't occurred to him that the words were listed alphabetically.

Further, though he knows the alphabet well and reads fine, he didn't know how to find words in the dictionary. The basic algorithm of locating the section with the first letter, then finding the area with the second letter, and narrowing it down letter by letter until you find your word, isn't one you need to exercise when using an online dictionary. (Writing an online dictionary program involves an understanding of search algorithms, but how do programmers get there from 2nd grade?)

Gabriel caught on quickly, but there was more to learn: abbreviations, the difference between the origin of a word and its definition, multiple definitions. He only had to look up and write the definition of two words, and the first took some time. By the second he had a decent idea of what a real dictionary was about.

I was really struck by how much would have been lost by asking a computer to do most of the work. The basic format of a definition, recognizing and ruling out symbols and abbreviations, learning how to find a word in an alphabetical list, even judging how many words you pass with the thickness of a group of pages....All the online dictionary would have handed him, easily, were words defining "blossom." So much else would have been lost.

I can't make a case that online resources are life-threatening or that kids growing up on Google can't learn to use a dictionary, but my inner Luddite wonders if this effect pervades all aspects of learning. Maybe my generation has the best of it: we grew up with encyclopedias, but now have the information power of Google too. Still, I am really not a fan of computer use in the schools, above its being a necessary tool -- certainly not a topic in and of itself unless you're learning computer science, much of which is paper and math learning anyway.

But the #1 reason not to use an online dictionary is that without very very close supervision, homework time on the computer will surely turn into a Speed Racer game.


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