The following is an actual question, posed by an actual school librarian:
You can’t use citation generators–why?? That is awful–we need to prepare kids for the real world. In the real world we use the generators.
The original post that inspired this “question from an actual school librarian” was by a school media specialist asking colleagues to share a few of their best online resources to provide students learning citation skills, to which she added the note that the students would not be using citation generators. Presumably, the librarian was looking for awesome sites like Purdue Online Writing Lab, which was by far the most popular answer to the query.
Similar “why do we have to learn this when they have an app for that” questions from students, I understand. From a school media specialist, though, the question makes me wonder what this person is doing in education. In the real world we do use tools like citation generators, calculators, and GPS navigation devices. We can and should make use of these tools. It is vital, though, (yes, vital) that we also make an effort to cultivate an understanding of the inputs and rules upon which these tools work. Things like citation generators and calculators should be a convenience, not a necessity–and they will be a necessity if we fail to facilitate learning and instead teach to the tool, app, or gadget.
I’ll be happy to explain why.
It is important that we practice putting together the components of a citation so that we understand what citations are made of and how they “work” to provide reference as well as acknowledgement. It is also kind of cool to look at the way different fields assemble their citations, depending on what is most important to them. Similarly, it is important to understand the fundamentals of mathematics so that we understand what to put into our calculator, and which function to apply in which order and in what situation. I love my home improvement projects and am glad that I know how to figure out on my own how much tile, crown moulding, or driveway sealant I need for a project. And, it is important to have at least a rudimentary understanding of map reading and direction so that when your GPS stops working after the zombie apocalypse…well, maybe not such a great example, but I can tell you I’m ready to evade those zombies.

It is through practice that we learn. Having students practice assembling citations without the help of a generator facilitates greater understanding of the components of a citation. Tools only work if we know what to put into them–and often, what to put into the correct field. Generators make mistakes. How will you know if your generator is spitting out the correct citation if you don’t know what components you are looking for, what order they belong in, or where to look for the standards? Please, please do not sell your students short by only teaching them how to use the tool that will accomplish the task. Teach them the reason for the task, teach them how to find the information they need to complete the task, teach them to be curious about how to improve the task. Encourage your students to be makers, not users.