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The Future of Research

Updated: Oct 2, 2018

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…’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.  


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