Bing Your Brain: Teaching and Learning in a Searchable World

Educators use the phrase “zone of proximal development” (or ZPD) to refer to those things that we can do with the help of others, but not yet on our own. And they generally use it with excitement, since that is where you often have the most fun with your students: when they are able, with your help, to see what they can’t yet do but will soon grow into.

Obviously, it’s a term that comes up often in childhood development, but at Bing, it is actually something that we talk about for adults as well. Because even though you’ve probably already mastered how to do long division, there are still things that you want to do but may not know how to, like repairing your sink or dancing the tango. After all, there are over 5.7 million queries done on Bing each week that begin with “how to”.

But as the internet expands the ZPD of almost everyone, it provides a new challenge: if everyone has access to information about how to do something, along with tools that help them do it, what should teachers actually be teaching? To understand the problem, think about the electronic calculator.

In the last 70’s and early 80’s, American schools went through a revolution as calculators became cheap enough that almost every student could afford one. Teachers had fervent debates about how to react. Should they cease teaching anything but the most basic math altogether and simply let students rely on the electronics to do it for them? Should they ban calculators entirely in the classroom and continue to teach as they always had? If schools have the job of preparing students to think and act in the real world, there was wide debate about what skills would truly equip them to do that.

Eventually, teachers arrived at a sort of consensus, where calculators became another tool in the classroom but basic mathematics was still taught. Students today may not spend as much time doing multiplication in their head, but they know the basics and most could, in a pinch, revert to pencil and paper to make calculations.

The combination of two inventions have started a similar revolution in schools today; the inexpensive computer and the internet are poised to seriously change the way we teach and learn around the world. Recently, the TED Prize of a million dollars was given to Sugata Mitra, an educator who took the radical step of creating a computer kiosk in a slum in Dehli for young street children to play with. Mitra showed that the children could actually self-educate on a variety of topics, simply by playing with the technology and being allowed to explore its contents.

While it is unlikely that we’ll soon be replacing schools by simply giving kids computers and expecting them to self-educate, we at Bing are thinking hard about the future of knowledge and education. Bing chief Qi Lu has recently spoken openly about “Bing as a platform”, an idea that permeates the work that we do. The idea is fairly simple:  the basic infrastructure of finding, analyzing, and presenting information is the key to the future of technology, regardless of the form that presentation takes. We imagine a world in which your ZPD is constantly expanded by the technology around you, where the traditional search box is replaced by thousands of touch-points where knowledge is available to you as you go through your life.

And we are confident that educators will adapt to that changing world. Just as teaching with a calculator has allowed students to learn increasingly complex mathematics, we at Bing believe that teaching with search will allow students to learn increasingly complex ideas in almost every subject they study. Technology is allowing the ZPD of everyone to expand, so we’re eager to meet the challenge posed by the question “What can Bing help me do today?”.

- Matt Wallaert, Bing Team