Saturday, May 3, 2014

In This Age Of Digital Cut and Paste, Why Teach Students Research Skills??

I am currently working with 2nd and 4th graders doing research.  To read about these projects checkout several of my recent posts 

These projects prompted me to ponder a question that parents may wonder about but are not willing to ask...

Why Research??  In this digital age of easy internet answers, some may wonder why we teach students research skills? Isn't this an antiquated skill?  You may remember your own tortured experiences with research papers that you wrote when you were in school. So why are we still teaching these skills? 

To begin with, the internet has turned us all into researchers. Not a day goes by that I am not using the internet to answer my questions, and I believe this is true for a majority of Americans.  

From fairly simple questions - What was the score of the game I missed? What is the phone number for ordering from Chipotle? What is the strange pain in my elbow? What is the weather forecast? Who is the best plumber in my area? 

To more complex questions - Why is Russia invading Ukraine, what is their history and why is this happening now? What is a drone? What are experts saying about raising resilient children? What new design ideas can I gather before I decorate my living room or landscape my yard? What is the prognosis for a loved one who was diagnosed with a stage 1,2,3 or 4 cancer? 

As we answer our questions, we are also learning how to research. Does this website answer the specific question I have?  Is it relevant to my question? How do a variety of websites answer the same question? (We are comparing and contrasting without the venn diagram!) Are all web resources equal and accurate, and if not, how can I tell?  This analysis, which we hope most adults do without realizing it, is why student research is still, even more now with easy web answers, a rich source for student learning. 

In addition to learning to analyze, students also learn the research conventions that will be required of them throughout their educational years. They learn to synthesize information from a variety of sources - books, ebooks, websites, databases and eReference sources! (Try to have a healthy respect for this part as it can be really hard at all ages!) They gather information from these sources to answer a question, use the information to create a written work or even better, a digital product that will answer the original question, and cite the sources of the information. Ideally students learn to share their learning with others, making their efforts more meaningful as they contribute to shared understanding! They also learn about copyright, plagiarism and giving credit to others for their ideas.  This last bit is even more important in this easy age of information cut and paste! 

Student research is more critical now than ever as we want students to acquire the life long skill of being curious!  We want them to wonder and ask themselves questions, not just for a school paper but for their life! Being curious, and the subsequent desire to solve a problem and answer a question is what leads to innovation! Unfortunately schools aren't often credited with promoting curiosity, which is why helping students research the topics that really interest them is so important! What are they curious about? What answers do they seek? Every student research opportunity doesn't have to result in a 15 page paper. We want students to be natural researchers, asking themselves questions and answering them in a variety of learning situations - from impromptu research during a math lesson that lasts only long enough to "google" it, to deeper questions that require multiple sources and leads to more followup questions! And finally, we want students to be able to articulate their learning to an audience in a myriad of ways! 

After reading this, it may become even more clear why all schools are trying to increase the number of digital devices that they can offer to students. Even though teaching students to be curious researchers can be done the old fashioned way, it is far more efficient, fun and intrinsically motivating for students to use the latest digital tools.

And just a final comment on teaching research.  Librarians and teachers who really tackle the art of developing student researchers do it throughout their day, in a variety of ways, and I take my hat off to them. It isn't easy to foster curiosity among students with such a range of interests, motivations and abilities!  It can be a bit of a three ring circus at times, not to mention the long hours of reading through student projects.  Even so, it is getting to see genuine student curiosity and watching them find their own answers that is the real teaching rush!