Why Develop Better Research Skills

We looked at research back when I was covering the transdisciplinary skills, but I wanted to go back to it because research is a fundamental skill in developing and utilizing the Personal Learning Environment.

When we were kids, back when phones had to be connected to a jack in a wall to function, research consisted of spending a class period or two in the school library (and maybe a weekend in a local library). We looked for our topics in overstuffed card catalogs, and hoped no one else was grabbing the same books we needed. We used a Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature to find magazine articles, and then poured pocketfuls of dimes into copying machines so we could take the articles back to the classroom. We highlighted. We marked up. It was relatively easy to decide what was worth checking out or copying.

Relatively.

I have recently become aware that a fair number of college students follow this blog (thank you), so you’re all probably looking at this post right now feeling very sorry for my generation. But it’s actually because of you guys and the classes coming up behind you that I’ve jumped back into this topic. Today, card catalogs are the basis for DIY/upcycled storage solutions found on Pinterest. Search engines, often accessed on smartphones, have replaced that function. The problem is: A card catalog represented only those books the library had decided to acquire. Each book was carefully selected by a librarian for its validity and its usefulness. A search engine…is stuck with everything that’s ever been posted to the internet. No one has vetted most of what’s out there. Someone using only a search engine is really taking their research into their own hands. To make matters worse, you could go to a card catalog with nothing more than a vague topic and generally manage to come up with something useful, even if that useful something was just a more refined search term thanks to cross-referencing. If you’re using a search engine…good luck with that.

As the saying goes, Google can bring you back hundreds of answers, but a librarian can bring you back the right answer.

Fortunately, research is a skill, and therefore can be taught. Really, it should be taught. As I said earlier, research is a fundamental part of learning a new skill. Research is about finding information sources, deciding whether or not those sources are valid, and then pulling out the specific information needed. This relies on some of the other transdisciplinary skills (because they’re all cool and play well together), like critical thinking and multiple literacies. Research training needs to start early in a student’s education. Google has even put together a series of lesson plans to help direct teaching students how to conduct research in this digital world.

There really is no excuse why a student at any grade level can’t conduct responsible research, even if they center their research activities on a search engine.

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