Questioning the Research

What types of research skills should we be teaching our high school students?

We recently sent home a survey of our 2007 high school graduates, and one of my primary aims was to find out how they are conducting their major research projects in college.  The method we teach currently, which is similar to the one I was taught in high school in the early 1990’s, is the standard research format taught in American high schools: Select topic, narrow topic through cross-referencing and research, select sources, write source cards, craft an outline of your paper, write notecards, categorize your notecards into where they will fit into your outline, write draft, revise, create works cited list using current MLA formatting rules, write 2nd/3rd/4th draft (if necessary).

I am in need of some assistance from the collecitve mind:

  • Do they need to do notecards?

This is one I struggle with, if only because I understand the need for students to be taught a method for categorizing information.  We often complain that while our students today are able to entertain themselves online in myriad ways, their ability to cull information from larger sources and categorize that information into useful chunks is lacking.  Let’s face it, to a 15-year old, Facebook is infinitely more appealing than tracking an online debate series on The Economist and pulling quotes into your Google Notebook titled “World economic issues.”  Broad generalizations aside, the majority of students I have worked with can handle themselves academically within systems that they view as academic: MS Office, Email, Google, but when we require them to go further into areas in which they need to transfer skills and apply them in unique ways we often hit a wall.  My question here is what now?  Do we use the system that we have known and trusted forever to prepare them for a world that may not use that system?  Will they ever use it again?  Or, do we give equal footing to other systems which we are experimenting with now?  We have teachers on both sides of this issue, and due to limited access to computers during the school day, teaching the students how to use online research tools becomes an issue.  But wait, the power of the screencast!

  • Do they need to know MLA style and APA and what the citations look like?

A large part of our research guide, last revised fully in 2005, but updated once a year to include changes, focuses on how to cite sources at the end of the research paper.  Because the pace of the change of the information landscape and the new types of media available for research, MLA and APA change often.  Are these the types of ideas that authors like Friedman and Pink have talked about: if the machine is more efficient, shouldn’t we let it be?  Will this free us up to do better quality thinking and writing?

  • Is the ability to use digital tools to synthesize and record information more important than using print sources?


  • Does our ability to do research hinge on our changing reading aptitudes?

There has been a lot of buzz lately about Tim Lauer’s NY Times article from this Sunday about the nature of reading today, especially in the youth.  Carolyn Foote wondered aloud about a few things that I really enjoyed:

So my question is, where do these findings leave us? What should we be doing differently?
  • Trying to engage students more in printed texts?
  • Engaging more with the types of online texts they may already be reading?
  • Teaching more evaluative skills?
  • Teaching more “connections” between texts–so that whether students are reading online or offline they are focused on how things connect to one another?
  • Helping students slow down sometimes in their reading so as to have the “back burner” time to ponder things?
And the last point she makes in this bullet series got me thinking:
  • Creating a mixture of methods for students to engage in all sorts of texts by bringing them into connection with printed texts via online tools?
  • The more I look at where the solution to this problem lies, it’s not going to be an “us or them” issue, an “old school v. new school” issue, but rather one in which we blend the thinking and categorizing we have always taught with a tool or set of tools that matches the need.  We need to categorize and sort, what can do that?  How can I avoid the boxes of note cards that are inevitably spilled in the hallways and thrown into color-coded confusion?

    I would like to know, if you don’t mind sharing, what your opinions are on conducting research in 21st Century classrooms.  Are we preparing our students for success by teaching them in the ways in which we were taught?

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    Image Credit: “Dewey or Don’t We?” from scampion’s photostream