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Curiosity killed

Students most often cite Wikipedia in their bibliographies. Why that could kill future startups

“The way to get startup ideas is not to try to think of startup ideas. It’s to look for problems, preferably problems you have yourself.” These are the words that kicked off a blog post this month by Paul Graham, the founder of Y Combinator and among the best known funders and advisers to entrepreneurs.

Reading the piece, I was struck by how similar the genesis of a startup, as he describes it, was to my experience starting EasyBib.com.

EasyBib started as Paul would describe “organically.” My friend and I thought there was a better way to create a bibliography for research papers, so as fun project, we built a tool for ourselves to automate the process. Bibliographies were certainly a random thing to build a business around, but we recognized an immediate pain point that students alike would feel. Additionally, as Graham characterizes of many startups, we didn’t build EasyBib from the get-go to be a startup with a clear business plan. Years later, EasyBib would grow to 40 million yearly users, and we found ourselves thinking of various strategies and opportunities to build a legitimate business from what once was a simple hack.

What most stood out to me was when Graham described a key to noticing new startup opportunities. He writes “…if you’re looking for start up ideas you can sacrifice some of the efficiency of taking the status quo for granted and start to question things.” (The emphasis is mine.)

As an entrepreneur, I certainly understand the importance of questioning, whether it be ideas, strategies, or failures. More importantly,  through our product EasyBib, we have direct insight into the questioning and inquiry skills of students. And it’s scary.

Guess what the most cited source is on EasyBib? Wikipedia. Five other top 20 sources are also user-generated websites, including Wiki Answers and Yahoo Voices.

This means two things: 1. Students are not questioning the authority of what they find on the internet. They take information at face value. 2. Student research is incredibly shallow. They consistently use sources that are the first few results on a search engine, which are often reference sources. Students are not delving deep into topics, questioning more and more about what they are learning.

Studies corroborate this as well. A Pew Research study titled “How Teens Do Research in the Digital World” states “students ‘doing research’ has shifted from a relatively slow process of intellectual curiosity and discovery to a fast-paced, short-term exercise aimed at locating just enough information to complete an assignment.” It also shows that 61% of teachers believe students have a fair to poor ability to assess the quality and accuracy of information they find online.”

This all boils down to lack of critical thinking, or the important skills needed to identify and execute on business opportunities. And why should this be any different? Young learners are growing up in a world where information is ready at their fingertips. They are used to Googling and finding the information they think they need immediately. The more they depend on search engines, the more they lose their independence to think and question.

If the next generation lacks these inquiry skills, our pace of innovation and creativity will consequently dwindle.

Fortunately, these problems are being acknowledged. In the US, the Common Core Standards, which aim to universalize what students learn, for example, underscore the importance of critical thinking and inquiry. Now teachers and librarians must learn and build upon strategies to effectively cultivate these skills, which can’t be easily tested and have not been in traditional curriculum.

A strong way to do this, I believe, is by example. Show students the paper trail of thoughts and questions used to research a topic so they have a sense of what this abstract concept of critical thinking is. Then match research assignments with interests to spark their curiosity. Have them document the cycle of questions, search terms, and resulting sources used. Catalyze intellectual discovery.

This is what it might look like: A student passionate about basketball begins to research Michael Jordan. He learns from a reference site like Wikiepdia that he had arduous practice habits. He questions and Googles more about Jordan’s practice routines. He then wonders what other people who knew the athlete, such as his coaches, said about him. He then searches his library on what were other practice habits and attitudes of famous athletes and how they are related. This is critical thinking, which is inspired by the student watching his teacher live out the process.  If the student was entrepreneurial, he may find that those practice habits significantly improve his basketball skills, and create a program to bring it to others.

Imagine young students more closely examining a topic of interest. Ideas will arise naturally. Moreover, young minds will have the foundation to think about and discover opportunities.

Our team, too, sees this as an opportunity. Along with EasyBib, we are working on products that reinforce research and critical thinking skills. We hope this will not only build upon good citizenship, but allow individuals to delve deeper. From our own experience as entrepreneurs, we know Graham is right: Questioning things is a crucial step in developing innovative ideas and startups.

You can follow Neal on Twitter at @tapneal. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com

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