Writing Is Hard Work

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  • Roger Colby

How to Teach Research: 5 Solid Tips

This blog is about writing, mostly about how to self-publish and to get your book in front of readers, but once in a while I publish an article about my profession, that of a high school English teacher.

Research, but specifically how to research has, in the last ten years, become crucial in understanding our world. There are currently countless "researchers" digging around in dark places on the internet, all of them wallowing in false and unfounded information, who think that there is some kind of Satanic cabal that controls everything and is drinking the blood of children.

It is prevalent enough for a mob of them to attack the U.S. Capital only a few months ago.

When I was in college in the '90's, the internet was new. One could find the information one needed with a simple search. Yes, it was like searching for a needle in a haystack, but you could narrow things down to find legitimate, peer reviewed articles. Currently, however, the haystack has grown to the size of the universe and the needle is microscopic.

How do we help students navigate this minefield? Here are five things I do in my classroom to ensure that students are researching properly.

  1. Don't Give Them Research Topics - I used to give students research topics for the reason that students need all the guidance they can get. This is really a poor way to introduce research. The truth is that we research all the time. Let's say your friend approaches you and tells you about a song by a particular artist. You listen to the song. You like the song. You then research that band, finding out what the entire album sounds like and then maybe you find out more about them and discover a whole new band to jam to. This is how research is naturally accomplished. We want to know what is over the next hill. The drive to know something is what should drive research.

  2. Stress Peer Review - Students naturally turn to google to find information. The problem with this is that the information could be written by some 45 year old uneducated curmudgeon living in his parent's basement. Peer Review has, sadly, become a buzz word to internet conspiracists because no one likes to be proven wrong. Unfortunately, the conspiracist's voices are very loud. However, being loud doesn't necessarily make you right. An article that is peer reviewed is written by an expert in the field. That expert's work, every point in their article, has been reviewed by a number of their peers (other experts in the same topic) who then sign off on the information as legitimate. We must allow students the freedom of finding their own information, but we must also teach them the importance of finding trustworthy information. I usually ask them if they have ever done rash, acting on false information because a friend told them an untruth. This usually drives home the point of why peer reviewed articles are a necessity.

  3. Force Them Outside Their Box - Students tend to research the things that interest them, but this also can be a problem. One of the joys of research is discovering something about your world that you had no idea existed. We need to be thinking about how to broaden their outlook on the world. Often what happens, especially with social media, is they like articles they agree with and dislike articles they don't agree with. This creates an idealogical bubble that only caters to their own interests. Social media is the most narcissistic structure ever invented due to this feature. Students must be broken out of that. If they are asked to research someone or a community they know nothing about, they might find out about other cultures, beliefs and ideologies that might make them a more well-rounded student. Isn't that what we are trying to accomplish anyway?

  4. Teach Them How To Use Google - Students use Google constantly. As a matter of fact, 94% of them think research is just looking things up on the main search bar on Google. What we must do is to teach them about boolean operators, using the advanced searching tools and search algorithms (which can be a double-edged sword). As stated before, trying to find that good nugget of information is like searching through a universe-sized haystack to find the microscopic needle. Giving students these tools will help them become more competent researchers because they will be able to find exactly what they need rather than the first few results (which are usually click bait).

  5. Stop Creating Conspiracy Nuts - Have you ever thought that possibly by teaching students to "question everything" because you think it's a cool lesson might give students the wrong idea about what research really means? You have to remember that some students will take your words and push them to the extreme. It's really important that people at least trust in science, realize that experts in a field have become experts through years and years of study and proven evidence. One of the wisest things I ever heard from a teaching professional was that there are two types of learning happening in a classroom. There is the direct learning which is when we teach the student how to properly avoid the pitfalls of using second person in a formal essay. There is also the subversive learning, and this can be the most damaging. It's like when an administration constantly talks about the importance of academics yet dismisses class for basketball tournaments for three days. The subversive learning in this example is that the school doesn't really care about academics and that the basketball tournament is more important. We do the same thing when we tell students to "question everything" or "question authority". There is an appropriate place for civil disobedience, for it allows us as a society to change things that disenfranchise and oppress humanity, but questioning your doctor because they told you to stop eating so many carbs is really dumb. The doctor is an expert in the field of how carbs effect your heart and your triglycerides. If we teach them to trust in experts and fight for injustice, then we will have a better world.

I've been teaching for over 20 years, but maybe I missed something in my list. If you want to contribute, write a comment below. We could all learn from one another. This is what makes us better people.

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