Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Future of Research

Last week a new pal and astute educator, Ed Chase, asked me if research was really a skill that “students of the future” would even need. Although, I was taken aback by the question at first, it’s continued to roll around in my mind ever since. Obviously, if you’re like me and are “of a certain age” then the skills, and certainly the tools, needed to conduct research have changed considerably since we were students.

But in a world where information is already being curated for us by complex algorithyms designed to a) figure out what we like and b) deliver search results that are tailored specifically to our desires…


...and in a world where soon we may no longer need a keyboard, or even a device in our hands, to access and interact with said information…


...it’s hard NOT to wonder if research really is a life skill.

For me, the answer is yes, but only if we redefine research. Of course, there are already plenty of rock star educators out there who are rethinking and revamping the “research process” for their students. However, given the number of times I still see teachers/librarians requiring 3x5 note cards and banning Wikipedia as an acceptable source, the more I believe that this is something we need to talk about.

All of that said, I don’t pretend to know all of the answers here, but this is what I DO know:
  1. Using a web tool or app to take notes is still just taking notes. How we have students gather information cannot be the only thing that changes about the research process. Given how easy it is to locate information, we have to move our students from simply being hunter/gatherers to being evaluators/creators. Plus, let’s face it, finding the required number of sources is easy work and I’ve yet to meet a student who was motivated by tasks that require little or nothing of them. Even though kids claim to want easy assignments, they really hunger for meaningful work and finding 5 sources of information about your home state, favorite animal or 21st President is NOT meaningful work.
  2. It's okay to use Wikipedia as a source.  Wikis, blogs, tumblrs, you tube, and other crowdsourced resources are not only legitimate sources of information, sometimes they are the BEST sources of information. We’ve got to stop banning students from using these resources. Rather, we need to teach them HOW to use them.  What's more, if WE don’t know how to use them ourselves, it’s (long past) time to learn. 
  3. Requiring “at least one print resource” is stupid. Really. Unless you have a legitimate learning outcome that can only be achieved by requiring a print resource then, essentially, you are requiring students to use/cite at least one out of date source of information. Even the best funded, most thoroughly weeded and skillfully cultivated library collection is full of nonfiction resources that are, for the most part, out of date by the time they reach the shelves. We need to think about WHY we require print resources and then only require them if doing so enhances learning. Note: knowing how to cite a print resources does not enhance learning. Which brings me to… 
  4. Writing a citation is not a life skill. I really don’t care if today’s learners know how to write the perfect works cited page or artfully craft footnotes and endnotes in MLA style. There are countless tools out there that, with just a few clicks, can do that (non brain stimulating) work for them. What I do care about is creating a culture in which tomorrow’s leaders see sharing their work and giving credit to others who also share as an essential part of the creative process. We need to quit docking our students a letter grade for not including a bibliography and instead empower students to license their own creations and make attribution a natural and essential part of the creative process. 
  5. Our students need to know how to evaluate more than just the source itself. The “smarter” search engines become, the more “customized” their results – which means the fewer points of view we, as info consumers, are exposed to. Today’s learners need to understand how search engines work, how the results can be skewed and how our own biases have the potential to impact the results we’re given.   This is hugely important - not just for them, but for us.
In the end, skepticism may well be the most important research skill we can teach our students. Instead of practicing Boolean search techniques and learning how to copy/paste text, video and photos via Evernote (I love, Evernote, by the way), perhaps the most important thing we can do for our student researchers is to engage them in activities in which they a) they gather information ONLY to solve real and meaningful problems b) are motivated to question the validity of both the information they find AND the tools that helped them find it and c) use that information to create new resources of their own.  

28 comments:

  1. I agree with you. We need to help our students create meaningful work using technology as a resource. It's not that all print resources are irrelevant, but I totally agree that requiring them is too old school for today's learners.

    I'm also a Wikipedia fan. Even if the article itself might not always be 100% accurate, the links at the bottom of each page are definitely helpful.

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    1. Thanks for the feedback, Jocelyn. I agree that the links in Wikipedia are often a treasure trove.

      j

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  2. Jennifer- This is a great post! Very thought-provoking. I especially love #3. Haven't thought too critically about that before, but you hit the nail on the head. Requiring a print resource for no reason is requiring a student to use an obsolete source, in most cases. Thanks for making me think!

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    1. Hi Jamie!

      I love print resources if they are required for a real learning outcome - and not just because I want kids to practice citing them. To me that's not a life skill. Thanks so much for the feedback!

      j

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  3. Thanks for this timely post. I'll use it for inspiration as I rework my research course for HS freshman this September.

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  4. I agree with everything you said! However, our state tests STILL require students to be able to understand research in the traditional ways to do well on tests.

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    1. Hi Ms. Langeberg,

      Although the test is always looming, I can think of countless ways that we manage to teach beyond it - especially when we see the learning outcomes as meaningful and important. I think we can show kids how things are done for the test, but then engage them in meaty, meaningful research tasks that tackle things that are far more important.

      Thanks so much for your comment!

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  5. Just brilliant! I agree 100%! Esp. with #2 about Wikipedia - that's why I created the "Wikpedia is not Wicked"cartoon & how to teach blog post. (Google to find ;-)

    Your voice is so clear, your message so spot on, this should be required reading! Thank you dear!
    ~Gwyneth

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    1. Thank YOU, oh Daring One. :) As usual, we're on the same page when it comes to Wikipedia - I've been singing that song for years. Thanks so much for your vote of confidence, it means so, so much!

      j

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  6. Fabulous post!! @Ms. Langeberg - I am thinking that the two are not mutually exclusive. I think we can integrate these new tools and important messages about digital and info literacy with our more traditional information. Both strands will be more robust as a result, and with active engagement strategies, I'm not sure it is going to take more time. More planning on the front end, perhaps. And, start lobbying for more current standards :). Thanks again for a great 21st C. learning post and synopsis of our mission.

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    1. Hi Ellen,

      Thanks for your comments. There's no shame in being concerned about the test - it's just not fair to our students when we plan our lessons revolve around it and not around them and true learning. I don't fault any teacher for having test anxiety - we just have to remember that good teaching will cover the info needed for the test, plus so much more.

      Thanks again,
      j

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  7. Thank you, Jennifer. What search engines do you encourage your students to use? Do you use Alan November's REAL to evaluate web sources? If not, what do you use?

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    1. Hi Sharon,

      I have certainly used REAL in the past - and also the 3 Rs - Is it Recent, Relevant and Reliable? I seem to spend more time on source reliability with 6th graders and then move onto how info is curated with upper grades. In my experience, kids catch on quickly - trying to outsmart search engines is a more challenging task.

      j

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  8. To focus on tools and mechanics is to misunderstand research, in my opinion.
    Research starts with asking good questions. Asking good questions requires creativity. These are certainly important life skills for students of today and tomorrow.
    The ways in which we find information, the forms it takes, the channels it flows through - these things will change. That requires adaptability, another important skill.
    Healthy skepticism will never go out of style. Evaluation will always be important.
    Something that is underemphasized or often overlooked about research is organizing information. That's a vital skill for coping with overload and making sense out of abundance.
    And finally, creating and communicating information will be even more important for students of the future than those of today. The evolving digital environment makes it easier and easier to share information and ideas in multiple media forms. Our students will be expected to have a level of digital information fluency that they aren't going to acquire by osmosis.
    So, research is hardly a passe skill. In an environment where everyone carries Internet access in their pockets, I'd say research skills are more important than ever.

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    1. Hi Paul,

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments. Honestly, I could not agree more. I would also say that there are many practitioners out there who have either long since made the leap or who are already working towards developing a research program that is more about good questions, solving meaningful problems and, as you put it, a healthy skepticism towards information in general - than about source cards, MLA format and having "at least one print resource" (for no reason other than having one). Unfortunately, we're not all there yet. I'm heartened to know that folks like you are out there engaging students in meaningful work.

      Take care,
      j

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  9. Citations for resources do not have to be a rigid exercise in format; they do need to cite any resources they use even if it is just a hyperlink. Teachers, too, need to better model where they get their information and do the same on anything they produce or present. Citizenship is both ways.

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    1. For sure. We need to create a culture of caring about attribution and giving credit to folks who create intellectual property. WHY we cite is far, far more important than how.

      Thanks for the feedback,
      j

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    2. I wonder if teaching 'how' enforces 'why', however. You do it this way because you are citing a reference because it is copyrighted material, and so forth.

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  10. Let's just lower the standards on everything until students don't have to do anything. As you make things easier and easier they learn less and less.

    Why have students learn algebra anymore? Most of them will never use it right?

    Using legitimate sources and doing proper citation teach students to WORK and actually apply themselves. They may not be the easiest thing but since when was education about being easy? Isn't it about learning?

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    1. Hmmm. Though I'm not sure where I proposed we lower standards, I have to point out that you and I ARE in agreement on one thing. It IS all about learning.

      Where we differ, however, seems to be in how we define learning.

      I'd rather my students focus on developing meaningful research questions, be skeptical regarding how information is curated and crafted to hide bias and use the information they find to solve real problems - as opposed to just memorizing how to cite certain resource types. In my opinion there's nothing meaningful in that type of "work."

      Thanks for the feedback.
      j

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  11. Just got to read the article. Great points! #4 on citing - so many tools to do it. It is just getting the students (AND ADULTS) to remember to do it. With CCSS, citing or giving credit becomes even more stressed than ever!

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  12. Requiring a print source may sound old school, but as a strong proponent of all things digital I have still found that students need to learn print research methods (which may actually be a different thing than just using a printed source). Those who only have ever known a Google search as their window to research have much to gain from learning how books organize knowledge (within themselves, via tables of contents, indices, etc.) and how institutions have organized knowledge around print knowledge (why have there been periodicals? how have they circulated? what's an academic press? a scholarly monograph?). Thus, I have required my students to make actual trips to the library and to browse books on the shelf that are next to the one they search in the catalog (to learn the planned serendipity of the LC system). I also require them to use printed reference works (precisely because this gets them stumbling into things that no computer screen does). My pedagogy is centered on digital literacy, yet I have seen the lights go on with students as I've guided them through how to use a book's bibliography or footnotes to find other sources (rather than always relying upon search engines). Much of that can be done via electronic versions of printed materials, which is fine, but they always report a kind of eureka moment when required actually to use physical knowledge materials.

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  13. Gideon you have made some very relevant points. I think it's important that students (and teachers) visit the printed information in a book too. Yes, the contents and index pages usually 'turn the light bulb on' for many of my students who have suddenly realised how quick it is to find something, instead of 'browsing/surfing' only. It is a side-by-side method to experience in this digital world!

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  14. I appreciate that your chosen form (blogging) rewards pithiness. As a teacher who has -- and will continue to -- sometimes require the use of a print source, I take some exception to your complete dismissal of the practice. Do real-life researchers choose sources according to their form? Of course not. However, students need to be taught about forms with which they are unfamiliar. As human beings, sometimes they need an incentive to work outside of their comfort zone. Look down upon my teaching as much as you like, but that's why I sometimes make requirements like this.

    Further, I consider periodical articles that went through an editing process and probably have a hard-copy version somewhere to "count" as a "print" source, even when they are accessed electronically. It takes practice for students to understand what kind of information is best located in what type of source and never pushing students beyond quick internet searches and Wikipedia answers is, I'm sure you would agree, lowering the bar. They all know how to do that before they enter my class. My job is to teach them something new.

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  15. Shared this post in an #engchat tonight - lots of discussion about "research" during the chat but also lots of uncertainty about what this looks like both from a process and product view. I'm sure your thoughts will stimulate some new thinking!

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  16. Thank you so much for this eye-opening page. It has completely changed my perspective on teaching research skills!

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