Monday, October 25, 2010

Teaching Research Skills

A few days ago a school librarian friend asked me for advice on teaching 6th graders research skills. The sixth grade teacher, who is new to the school, asked for help. Asking the librarian for help is a good sign because the librarian has tried since the beginning of the school year to interest the teachers in visiting the library for research help. The librarian told me on many occasions that the teachers complain that they have no time for the librarian to teach research or library skills. Yet, the teachers don't act as if they even know how to use the data bases or other library resources.

A long time ago when I was in library school if one needed to do an electronic search, one needed to make an appointment with the librarian. Before going to the computer terminal (no PCs in those days) the searcher discussed the search strategy. Since online time cost so much money, it was more cost effective to spend time thinking before searching. The librarians would help with the formulation of search and research questions. Online time to search could cost $50 or $100 per hour depending on the data base. Even at this price a search could save hours of tedious research in the paper indexes. Today one can performs hundreds of searches in an effort to find answers to research questions. However, because of all the information out there, one needs to learn to create an efficient search strategy and patiently search for answers. Research takes time; there are few instant answers to tough questions.

Computerized data bases (and yes data bases existed before computers) were the by-product of computerized typesetting used to print paper indexes. A data base is created by human beings, not automated computer searching. The indexer enters the author(s) title, subjects and other searchable fields. The indexer has to decide how to use the rules for entering names and the controlled vocabulary of subject headings. There is a reason that data bases cost a lot of money and search engine do not charge the public for their use. Search engines index based on algorithms; they can't manage ambiguity and conflicting information.

The sixth grade teacher had assigned them topics concerning countries, but the topics were very general. The student were told to investigate aspects such as food, art, geography, culture, and politics.

Use IRAC as a methodology or reminder for research steps.

I stands for Issue or Interest. Understanding the questions concerning the issue and background is the first step for the sixth graders' research project. In order to look up anything one needs to formulate the questions. What interests you (the researcher)? What aspect of the subject is interesting or what bothers you? Since the student does not know much about the subject, reading a general encyclopedia or text book is the way to start. Many teachers say, "Don't use the encyclopedia!" What they should be saying is "Let's learn how to properly use the encyclopedia as a valuable research tool." Students could read 2, 4 or 20 articles before learning enough to formulate useful research questions.

R stands for Research tools. What electronic or print resources are you going to use to find the answers? Librarians take courses in data base searching and reference to gain background to guide searches. Google, reference books, data bases are part of the tool set to find answers. What are their relative strengths and weaknesses?

A is for Analysis. After using the tools to find resources and reading the materials, how can you apply the information to solve the problem. If there are multiple issues, how can they be broken down before analyzing them? What kind of bias is present in a source? Triangulate resources to try for a more accurate picture of subject. If three sources point to the same answer, one can be more certain of the truth than when two sources disagree. Analysis is the reconciliation of the parts of the problem to enable one to understand the whole.

C is for Conclusion. The thesis states the problem and outlines the questions. Write your paper using the analysis of the facts and sources to support your thesis. The conclusion answers the question(s).

Versions of this research strategy are applicable to all academic levels and ages of students. The sources and the ability to analyze them vary with the student's age and academic ability. Thinking, confronting ambiguity, and analysis are part of the critical thinking skills that are required in all disciplines.

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