Research Skills in a Digital Age

Image by Ted Eytan via Flickr.

A friend of mine who teaches elementary school shared with me a funny story. She took her fourth class to the school library. Like all modern libraries, the library has its share of books and computers including a computerized catalog system for finding books. At same time, it still has one old fashioned card catalog, since the catalog is attached to the wall of the library, a relic of an earlier age. One student noticed this catalog and started rifling through the cards with an elated look on her face. "Look everyone, I found some really cool bookmarks!" she exclaimed as she started giving out cards to her fellow classmates.

Those of us who are old enough to remember using a card catalog, probably anyone over the age of 25, might bemoan this anecdote as one more example of what our current students are lacking with modern technology. However, I wonder if this is really a sign of the coming of the apocalypse. Do our students really need to know how to use a card catalog anymore? Like cursive writing, another skill which parents and teachers might look back at nostalgically but really is not that necessary in an age of keyboarding, finding a book using a card catalog is really not that important anymore. I know, what will we do if the computers are down? How will students find books? My answer. They will probably search for the book using their smartphones. (And please don't ask me what they will do if their smartphones are down as well. Even during Hurricane Sandy when we lost power for a week in my part of NJ, we never lost cell phone service. If both the computers and smart phones are down, we will have much greater concerns than trying to search for books in our local library.)

However, while students might no longer need to know how to use a card catalog, they still need to know effective researching skills. I believe that another staple of the library class, the Dewey Decimal system, is still an important skill for our students to learn considering that once they search for a book using a computerized catalog, they still need to know how to find it on the shelf.

Another newer research skill that is essential today is how to Google effectively. Our students think they know how to use Google but in reality, often don't. Yes, they can put in some search terms and maybe even look past the first page when searching for a resource, but rarely know how to go beyond the superficial facts to perform a thorough search in an intelligent fashion. This point was made poignantly by Alan November in his presentation about the First Five Days of School at the recent ISTE Conference.

Alan presented as his example a search for information on the Iranian Hostage Crisis from the perspective of the Iranians. If you just Google the Iran Hostage Crisis, you get no Iranian sources. You first need to teach students how to flick the switch to including only Iranian websites by adding the Google search operator "site:" to include only certain sites and then using Iran's web country code "ir" so your search would be "Iran Hostage Crisis site:ir" to get Iranian sites.

The challenge is that when you flip the search to a different country, you don't really get very good results because you can't just type in Iranian Hostage Crisis. The Iranians didn't call this event the Iranian Hostage Crisis. That was the American term. This is where Wikipedia can come in handy. When you look up the Iranian Hostage Crisis on Wikipedia you discover that in Persian this event was called the Conquest of the American Spy Den. Then if you search for "The Conquest of the American Spy Den site:ir" or maybe add site:ac.ir to limit your search only to academic sites in Iran you finally get the Iranian perspective on this event. It is this type of advanced research skills that our students need in our digital age. You can learn more about advanced Google tools by going to powersearchingwithgoogle.com.

This focus on teaching our students research skills in an age of Google leads to an even more essential question. What should be the focus in school in an age where students can just Google the answer? Teaching our students how to search effectively whether using the computerized card catalog or Google is one such skill. But even more important is teaching our students how to analyze and evaluate the sources they find in their search.

The most obvious example of this is the need to give assignments that require our students to think critically. If you ask students, they will tell you that in the overwhelming majority of their assignments, they can just Google the answer. Anything that students can just Google is not a very effective assignment. Obviously, this is a hard question and differs based on age and subject matter; how do we teach our students critical thinking skills? But it is the question that we must continuously ask ourselves as educators. This is what should keep us up at night.

As a Judaic Studies teacher, I struggle with this question. At the ISTE conference, this is a question we struggled with as a group when we gathered Jewish educators together in a Birds of a Feather session. For example, if our students can find word by word translation for the Gemara and other essential Torah texts using online tools like The Mercava or Sefaria how much should we focus on reading and translating in class? I believe that these skills are crucial for helping our students become independent learners but is this a realistic goal for all or even the majority of our students in a Yeshiva Day School? Would not research skills like how to find sources in the original Hebrew/Aramaic or in translation and how to thoughtfully interpret them be more important? I really don't know the answer to this question. It also might differ from student to student.

One could ask a similar question in mathematics. In an age where one can put any math problem into the WolframAlpha computational knowledge engine and get a detailed answer with results in many different formats, is it not more important that our students understand the mathematics behind the problem and the various ways to show the solution than to work out the solution themselves? As I said. I do not have the answer to this thorny question. But there is one thing I am sure of. You cannot just Google this one.

I welcome your thoughtful responses in the comments to this post.