Thursday, November 11, 2010

Searching for the Correct Answer

The new report from Project Information Literacy describes the research predicament students face as they go to college. 

  • 84 percent of students have difficulty getting started with course-based research
  • students take how they learned to research in high school with them to college
  • students regard research as a search for the correct answer
It's the last one that shows how far the search process has wandered off course. As Alison J. Head, an investigator on the study has said,
"Not being aware of the diverse resources that exist or the different ways knowledge is created and shared is dangerous. College is a time to find information and learn about multiple arguments, and exploring gets sacrificed if you conduct research in this way."  (quoted in the Chronicle of Higher Education)
I suspect that searching for the "correct" answer stems from research experiences in high school. There certainly could be tensions over adopting this approach in middle school and high school.

First, let me engage in some self-criticism. Many of the Search Challenges that are found on the 21st Century Information Fluency site have a correct answer. In some cases there are multiple correct answers, but this does not reinforce the concept that diverse resources should be investigated. A diet consisting solely of Internet Search Challenges would lead most students to conclude that searching is totally about finding an answer to a question.

21cif Search Challenges, for the most part, exist to improve speculative searching by:

  • strengthening ability to turn questions into queries
  • helping students identify databases that are likely to contain relevant information
  • helping students modify searches by careful examination of snippet results (abstracts)
Are these enough to prepare students for post-high school research challenges? I doubt it. However, those bulleted objectives are all necessary--without them, research is accidental.

The point is that students need more than practice honing skills, strategies and techniques that are useful for finding answers. They need to be challenged to look for rival answers, then evaluate them. If students  learn only to be better speculative searchers in high school, they are half-prepared for what comes next.  Investigative searching looks beyond first answers to see if answers hold up. In the process, fact-checking, investigating authors' credentials, etc. often turns up different points of view. 

Is Investigative Searching being taught in high school? You tell me.

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