Six Clicks of Separation

by Joe Levit

Children have an innate curiosity about our world that can become quickly tamped down when school systems fixate on standardized tests or obsess over core standards. To combat this results-driven mindset, teachers can and should introduce classroom activities that promote raw creativity. One such activity spawns a storm of appealing outcomes, and teaches students responsible research methods at the same time. The activity? Working with Wikipedia.

The world’s encyclopedia is the sixth most-accessed website in the world. Its popularity can be simply explained—people can use the site to learn about almost anything in a quick and concise fashion. However the true strength of Wikipedia is not its prodigious content, but rather its unlimited usability.

Most Wikipedia entries are flooded with hot links that allow a user to click instantly to further explanation of any interesting word or topic. From that new page, other hot links can connect a user to still more words or topics. And so on. This “Choose Your Own Adventure” navigation means the rabbit hole of learning at Wikipedia is both highly engaging and virtually never-ending.

Here in part one of this two-part post, I will describe an activity you can use to get students excited about research with Wikipedia. But because Wikipedia is only the initial means to an end of research and not the end of research itself, in part two we’ll take this activity further. There, I’ll talk about how important it is to explain Wikipedia’s limitations as a source, detail how students can take their beginning research further and outline a final classroom writing exercise.

Instead of six degrees of Kevin Bacon, students will be working on an at-home exercise in six degrees of Wikipedia. In class, explain to students that they will all start out on the same first page.

At home, each student should read the contents of that first page. After they know about the topic, each student will then click on any hot link on that topic page that interests them. He or she should keep track of the hot link they clicked. Then they will read the new Wikipedia page they linked to. And so on for five more hot links, keeping track of their hot link route along the way.

Starting from a common point grounds the activity. But the number of hot links in Wikipedia quickly enables students to forge their own hot link route, by following their own curiosity. By the end of the six links, no one in the class should finish on the same subject.

Here is an example scenario:

Go to www.wikipedia.com

Have all students first type a specific word into the Wikipedia search box. In this case, the word is “ice cream”

After reading the page content, each student will click on one of the blue-colored hot links. Which hot link to choose is entirely up to the individual student. I thought “ice crystals” sounded interesting, and made that choice.

Ice Crystals [One click of separation]

My choice of hot link took me to a page explaining what ice crystals are and how they form. After reading the page, I selected the “cirrus clouds” hot link.

Cirrus Clouds [Two clicks of separation]

Now I encountered a page about high-altitude atmospheric clouds. After reading this page, I chose the “virga” hot link.

Virga [Three clicks of separation]

Here, I found out the name of water that falls from a cloud but evaporates before it hits the ground. After reading the page, I clicked the hot link “heat burst.”

Heat burst [Four clicks of separation]

Next I learned about vertical currents of dry air that condense quickly and fall to the ground, raising temperatures immensely in only a few moments. To continue learning about this type of phenomena, I clicked on the hot link “downburst.”

Downburst [Five clicks of separation]

Here I learned about rain-cooled air that spreads out in all directions when it hits the ground, often causing significant damage. After reading the page, I wanted to know more about a specific kind of downburst, so I clicked on “microbursts.”

Microburst [Six clicks of separation]

Finally, we have reached the sixth click of separation. Here, I find my final topic. I started with ice cream, and finished with atmospheric microbursts. This is a downburst that is very localized, and creates strong straight-line winds.

This is my Wikipedia hot link route: Ice Cream –> ice crystals –> cirrus clouds –> virga –>  heat burst –> downburst –> microburst

You can see how Wikipedia facilitates a student’s natural curiosity. In the next post we’ll discover how to reign in that curiosity, using solid sources to construct a short written report.

Joe Levit

Joe Levit has long worked to connect children with the natural world. He has worked as an editor at Time for Kids magazine, and written stories for National Geographic Kids (newsstand) and National Geographic Explorer (classroom) magazines. He can often be seen searching for Pale Male and other urban wildlife in New York City’s Central Park.

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