Sunday, July 12, 2009

World's Fastest Animal

"What is the top speed of earth's fastest animal?"

Seems simple enough. But just letting students search for an answer shortcuts an opportunity for learning. In my workshops for elementary teachers and librarians, I hand out half sheets of paper on which is written a different word from the challenge. I have the participants stand and ask them, "which of these words do we need for a query?" Prior to this we've looked at the Question to Query checklist.

With adults, the stop words automatically sit down without any question (what, is, the, of).

The individuals holding earth's and top realize they aren't necessary: where else would one look for an animal except earth (earth's is redundant) and top is redundant because fastest is one of the words.

The last one to sit is often speed. Fastest usually makes the point that speed is unnecessary as long as she's there.

That leaves fastest and animal. These two form the optimal query for the challenge. I should point out that one of these is an adjective--not usually a good "as is" word (nouns and numbers are better).

The exercise appeals to language arts teachers because it reinforces understanding parts of speech and the making of meaning--in this case understanding about redundancy. With younger audiences, it's possible to lead them to these discoveries by the use of questioning. In either case, the activity intersects two valuable lessons: one about language and the other about searching.

Over the course of the last month, the answer to the search challenge has become more interesting. Most people discover that the best answer depends on whether the animal flies, runs or swims. (As I wrote in the previous blog, this points out the inadequacy of the question and the knack some students have for assuming incorrectly they know what the question is about--and why many will say the answer is a cheetah.)

If you think the Peregrine Falcon is the speediest animal, you now need to defend your choice. A faster animal shows up in the results. Again, this points out the inadequacy of the search challenge question, but it forces you to decide what makes something the fastest.

Curious? Try the challenge.

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