Teaching research skills in the 21st century

I teach history, which means I teach a fair amount of research. I ask students to engage in short-term web-based research in class on their iPads to introduce them to a new unit, and often ask them to find articles to answer an essential question at home for homework. In my 9th and 11th grade courses, students write major research papers on historical topics of personal interest to them as a major component of their year’s work.

image credit: wisegeek.com

image credit: wisegeek.com

Reflecting on my 9th graders’ research papers – on which we spent an entire 8-week term – I came to the conclusion that, although information is more readily available today, research is tougher in the digital age than it was when I was in school. I remember choosing a topic and opening up the card catalog in the school library (that’s right, CARD CATALOG – and I’m technically a millennial!) to find a few books on the subject. Even in college, most of my research was done in the library using books, archives of newspapers and magazines, physical sources I could touch as I read.

Today, my students turn to Google first, and often spend hours clicking around while they orient themselves to a topic. Later on, they cannot re-locate the sources of the information they have found. They are master skimmers and synthesizers, jumping from article to article, site to site, combining snippets of information into a story in their brains. The problem? They consume this information on autopilot, without a critical thought to the reliability of the source, or to how it might be used in a formal, academic setting. They are great at finding “stuff” but not so great at thinking about where it came from or what it means.

This was most evident to me in the annotated bibliographies that kids prepared in the early stages of their research process. They had no clue what a “reference source” was and how it was different from a website. They couldn’t tell if they were reading a newspaper, magazine, blog, or interview. “Who wrote this?” I asked, “Can you find the author’s name?” It hadn’t occurred to them. I was shocked. All things were equal in their minds, falling squarely in one category: “internet.”

image credit: signaurecards.net

image credit: signaurecards.net

Yikes!

image credit: emergingedtech.com

image credit: emergingedtech.com

Then, I came across an interesting new search engine called “Wonder.” According to the folks at Emerging Ed Tech, Wonder is designed to be…

“a very different type of search engine. Instead of computer generated feedback, a real human being who is an expert researcher will find the best sources for you, and send them to you within an hour! You can spend less time reviewing the overwhelming number of responses that today’s search engines typically produce, and more time focused on your research.”

What?

This strikes me as problematic for a few reasons.

1) There is a market for this type of service, which means there are many students out there (it seems that the search engine is aimed at teachers and K-12 students) who do not have the skills to navigate the abundance of information and the forms in which it can be accessed. And it seems that our schools aren’t adequately addressing this skill gap.

2) You can spend less time reviewing the overwhelming number of responses that today’s search engines typically produce, and more time focused on your research. What does research become if you remove the “search” part? The entire point of research, particularly in the 21st century, is to deal with the “overwhelming” amount of information out there, to filter out the irrelevant or unreliable, honing in on the information needed.

3) The hope of teaching research, at least in my opinion, is that students will start to apply the standards of relevance and reliability they learn outside of the academic context as well. Are they interested in the Baltimore riots? Do they want to learn more about the candidates running for president? I don’t want them seeking out answers mindlessly and forming opinions without distinguishing between trustworthy news sources and blog rants. “Outsourcing” their academic research to a search engine like Wonder means they’re even less likely to transfer the critical thinking learned in school to their personal media consumption.

I’m not sure where this leaves me, other than convinced of the importance of teaching research and media analysis skills. More and more, we need to ask students to find the right information, to think critically about who is producing it and how that impacts the message they’re reading. We need to devote considerable time to assessing the reliability of available sources and weigh the relevance and quality of information given a variety of purposes. Unfortunately, the 20th century model of schooling, heavily reliant on textbooks with a few sporadic research “projects,” doesn’t lend itself to the full development of these skills and mindsets.

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Categories: Stage 3: Critical Thinking

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