Helping Students Leverage the Connective Power of Research

connective power

I still remember the moment I went to the computer lab to check out the World Wide Web. This was somewhere around 1993. The librarian called it a Field trip to the Information Superhighway and for awhile I thought she was like Ms. Frizzle.

“See this page you’re reading right now? Other people can be on the same page anywhere in the world. People are already sending electronic mail back but you have to send it to right address. It’s like a mailbox but it’s a computer.”

My eyes lit up. It was like magic.

Fast forward a couple of decades and I’m in the car with my family. While my wife is driving, my sons are peppering me with questions about inventions. I’m flipping between pages, saving videos that I plan to show them later, and sending an email to myself with all the links. I’m searching Twitter to see if I know of any expert that they might be able to talk to about this subject. I’m looking at diagrams that connect to what they are talking about.

While I’m in the car.

It’s a reminder that research can happen anywhere at any time. We have powerful devices that connect to the world. We can easily access information in any media format imaginable. But we can also connect to experts. But this connectivity also means we face a barrage of information, often filtered in a way to increase ad revenue by showing us things we find entertaining and things that reinforce our worldview (I love the red feed / blue feed experiment to show this).

This is why information literacy is so critical for the future of learning. If we want to see students become critical thinkers and lifelong learners, they need to be able to navigate information. But it goes beyond simply figuring out the accuracy of what they are accessing. It also involves tapping into the connective nature of their devices. In other words, I want to see students learn how to be researchers. I want to see them learn to ask great questions and find the answers through data, through reading, through videos, through podcasts, and through finding experts that they can talk to.

Unfortunately, school doesn’t always work this way. Too often, students engage in research at the end of the year, after the “real” learning has finished. It’s often a structured project, where the teacher determines the topic, the questions, the sources (often requiring most of them to be books) and the finished essay. They don’t get the opportunity to tap into the connective power of technology.

1. Research through Reading

The first research approach involves finding information by looking at text-based documents. This is, by far, the most common type of research in school. After all, the information is available at their fingertips. By searching the interwebz, they can find the answers and grow in their understanding of the information. Still, there is power in having students access Google Scholar and check out articles that go beyond what they might initial find in a typical Google Search.

2. Multimedia Research

Some of the best information online isn’t text-based. Think of the last time you tried to figure out how to learn something new. Chances are you didn’t limit yourself to text-based answers. You probably watched a few YouTube tutorials along the way. Similarly, if you’re an avid podcast listener, you’ve probably learned about concepts from a different angle by listening to 99% Invisible or Invisibilia or Hardcore History.

Sadly, I’ve seen too many classrooms where students are discouraged from using multimedia resources. They’re seen as being less real than a text-based resources.

Video, pictures, and audio resources make concepts to come alive in a way that reading alone does not. It’s not that multimedia resources are better but that they allow students to see things and to hear things that they can’t see or hear in a text.

3. Exploring Data

Another research option involves exploring data. This last year, my son got excited about the plants growing in his classroom garden:

“We recorded our data on graphs, dad. And guess what? Even though the plants don’t look like they’re growing much, I can prove it with my graph!”

When you think of things that typically ignite the passion of a third grader, data and graphing probably don’t hit your radar. However, this conversation with my son reminded me that when data is meaningful to the student, it’s actually pretty exciting.

Students can access tons of data online. But they can also connect with other students in share data, increasing the sample size and finding larger trends. By using a spreadsheet or a Google Form, students can collect data in a connected way and then share their observations both synchronously and asynchronously. I remember when my students conducted a needs assessment and then shared their data with students in other cities. They looked at trends relating to perceptions of social issues in their neighborhoods. It was a reminder of the human and contextual side of data.

4. Interviews

We typically think of research as something static. Students read this or watch that. But when students conduct interviews, they are able to ask questions, get direct answers, and ask follow-up questions. It’s a personalized, powerful way for students to learn about a specific topic.

This might involve interviewing a specific person who is an expert on the subject. They might talk to a professor who has taught the subject, an author who has written about it, or someone within a certain profession who has inside knowledge. Other times, they might interview a person who has been impacted by a system, idea, or problem.

The Future Belongs to the Researchers

In this Future of Learning series, we’ve focused on students as curators, entrepreneurs, philosophers, and makers. I’d add that students need to be researchers. Here’s why:

  • In a world of Big Data, we need students to develop into the kind of people who can make sense out of the human, contextual side of data while also analyzing data trends.
  • In a world of information overload, we need students to know how to identify solid sources and make sense out of bias.
  • In a world of connectivity, we need students to know how to find connections between sources and how to connect to the experts in a field.
  • In a culture that often believes information at face value, we need students to be natural skeptics and critical thinkers.
  • In a world where so many industries are turning to design thinking, students need to ask great questions and engage in meaningful research before they start prototyping.This is part of why we included a section on research in the LAUNCH Cycle. Too often, design thinking focuses on the development side of design and ignores the research side of research and development.

While these points are primarily practical, there’s something far less practical at hand. Research should be fun. It should feel like geeking out. When we chase our curiosity and find answers, it sparks more curiosity. We should never reach a point where we run out of questions. There’s something inherently fun in this geeky exploration of anything we find fascinating. It’s part of what makes life fun.

George Couros once mentioned that students should leave schools more curious than when they arrived. I tend to agree. And I think a part of making this happen involves helping students develop a researcher’s mindset. When they view themselves as explorers, they retain the sense of wonder and curiosity that they will need in order to remain lifelong learners.

research quote

Listen as a Podcast

This post is also available on my Creative Classroom podcast. This time it’s a little different. I recorded the podcast as a stream of conscious reflection and then wrote the post later. If you’re someone who enjoys listening to podcasts on the way to work, this might be a great way to “read” my blog. (Note: if you enjoy the podcast, please feel free to leave a review on iTunes). You can also listen to it below:

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.

More about John

2 responses

  1. […] This is why information literacy is so critical for the future of learning. If we want to see students become critical thinkers and lifelong learners, they need to be able to navigate information. But it goes beyond simply figuring out the accuracy of what they are accessing. It also involves tapping into the connective nature of their devices. In other words, I want to see students learn how to be researchers. I want to see them learn to ask great questions and find the answers through data, through reading, through videos, through podcasts, and through finding experts that they can talk to.  […]

  2. School librarians have the unique training to make all of what you are saying possible, if only teachers would collaborate with them. Please encourage your teacher readers to seek out their librarian when planning even simple research-related activities, especially those online–we have curated a wealth of resources for this! Also, please encourage your principals to promote the librarian as a teacher leader–certified school librarians have teaching degrees and years of classroom experience before they became librarians!

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