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Empowering Students for Life: Research Skills in the Age of Testing

By Carolyn Foote - Posted Mar 1, 2010
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Empowerment. Is that a term we think of when we think libraries? We should.

Because that’s what libraries and school libraries have done for eons—empower learners to become independent and productive citizens.

In this age of easy access to Google, standardized testing, and AP curriculums, why should we teach research skills at all? Don’t students “know everything” about research and the web?

Studies (and experience) show the contrary. Although we consider our students to be Digital Natives, their usage is somewhat different than we might assume—proficient in some areas but not in others. According to research done by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, while 73% of younger teens use social networking sites, only 14% write blogs; only 25% have downloaded podcasts; about 25% have uploaded videos; and about 50% have tagged content (Rainie, Lee, “Networked Learners,” Pew Internet & American Life Project; www.pewinternet.org/Presentations/2009/52-Networked-Learners.aspx). [For more on what students know—and don’t know—about using technology, see Mary Ann Bell’s Belltones column from the January/February 2010 issue of Multimedia & Internet@Schools. It’s available in the print issue or online at mmischools.com. —Ed.]

Why does this matter, and what does it have to do with our work with students? Chris Lehmann writes in Principal Leadership magazine (December 2009): “Those of us who work in education talk a lot about student engagement, but I don’t think that goes far enough. Engagement is certainly better than boredom, but schools should set the bar for themselves … much higher. What schools should strive for is student empowerment.”

The Heart of the Matter

Lehmann’s statement hits at the heart of why teaching research skills is important. Students have varying levels of proficiency with the internet, database research, and Web 2.0 tools. As we improve their research skill set and mindset, we help them become more independent of us. Knowing how to find and interpret information is a lifelong skill. Even though we can’t anticipate the devices or methods our students will be using to find information 20 years from now, we are not just teaching about databases, or how to deal with privacy on Facebook, or how to use Google effectively. We are (or should be) teaching students how to think, evaluate, interpret, and question.

Why is this significant? We have to look at where our students will be going.

While preparing students for the workplace is not our only role, a brief glance at the corporate and governmental use of social networking lends some insights. According to Socialtext, 79% of Fortune 500 businesses maintain blogs (www.socialtext.net/bizblogs/index.cgi). On the Social Media Today site, Nancy Dixon explains how the Army has just started using social networking tools, including a newly minted wiki that allows soldiers in the field to update Army doctrine and training materials themselves (http://socialmediatoday.com/SMC/154158). Best Buy uses an employee-generated wiki to evaluate new products. Chevrolet created a college contest for Super Bowl advertisements in 2007, and Doritos has done the same.

The point is, when students enter the professional world, whether they are working for a Fortune 500 company or the military, utilizing research and evaluation skills to create products using Web 2.0 tools will be the name of the game. These uses are real, authentic, and crucial. It’s clear that what our students need to know goes far beyond the state-mandated testing requirements or AP course content. The more user-created content there is, the more CNN “iReport” there is, the more we need future content creators to be empowered thinkers. As Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody, points out, we have an opportunity, by nurturing and empowering student thinking now, to create a user-driven internet that becomes a collegelike “communicative backbone of real intellectual and civic change” in the future, instead of a socially obsessed “high school” (Weblogg-ed; http://weblogg-ed.com/2010/norms-of-participation).

Maureen Tumenas of Berkshire Country Day School (Mass.) further points out that teaching research skills is imperative because, she says, “We are overwhelmed by too much information today and the ability to seek out relevant information is critical.” If our assignments are not real-world problems, helping students to ask authentic questions, find the best sources, winnow out unnecessary information, compile information in a coherent and creative format, and share it with a global audience, then we are failing to empower them.

Librarians, Research, and the New Tools

As librarians, we have to continue to be experts in the fundamentals of research, familiar with concepts such as Carol Kuhlthau’s research process model, the Big Six Skills, and others. But we also have to become expert in how the new tools can help students with the process. We have to know the go-to tool for a particular goal students have, whether it’s a wiki site, YouTube, or SlideShare. We have to know about Creative Commons and learn new ways of looking at copyright. We need to help students explore tagging and bookmarking with Delicious or Diigo, more than helping them understand the Dewey.

We have to be aware of how sources such as Wikipedia or Google Scholar challenge the standard equation and how to address that. We have to know how to work with students who are both consumers of information and prosumers (a term coined by Alvin Toffler in the 1980s). We have to understand the importance that storytelling and design have in the 21st century, as outlined by Daniel Pink in A Whole New Mind, in helping students create excellent products. Most of all, we have to be able to help scaffold students all the way through the process, as Kuhlthau encouraged us to do 2 decades ago, so that we help them build skill sets of their own. It’s not just about the tools; it’s about teaching students to search, organize, question, and think.

As Dean Shareski puts it, “I think empowerment … means that we hand over the reins of learning to [students] so they own it. That doesn’t mean that they have learned all they need to learn, but they’ll establish a purpose for themselves. Our role will continue to be to provide guidance and wisdom. … The best scenario in my mind has the teacher not as the guide on the side but the meddler in the middle. (not my term btw).” (http://drapestakes.blogspot.com/2010/01/practical-theory.html#disqus_thread).

Obstacles?

We often face obstacles on our own campuses in implementing new methodology. One oft-heard concern from AP teachers or teachers at underperforming schools relates to time—time to do an inquiry-based assignment, time to learn Web 2.0 tools, and also time to utilize them in class, which perhaps may take longer than some other method. There is sometimes a perception that these tools are an “add-on”—just one more thing to be included in the curriculum that no one has time for.

These tools don’t need to be an “add-on.” If they are, there is something wrong with how we are teaching them, in isolation. The tools/skills should grow organically out of the process and project underway, fitting seamlessly into it and adding some transformative element. For example, when students use Diigo to annotate texts collaboratively and then comment on each other’s annotations, it transforms their relationship to the research text. If they engage with it more deeply, they learn more about it. When students collaborate on a research wiki, building their own “Wikipedia” of information, they become writers, producers, and editors of information, transforming their relationship with it and internalizing it more completely. (Not to mention that collaborating can actually “save” time in the curriculum.)

Time Saver!

While it might appear to be more time-consuming, employing an inquiry method with students or using Web 2.0 tools for students to build something can save time for students and deepen student learning. One project I did with our AP government instructor illustrates this.

The instructor teaches a labor-intensive project where students research an act of Congress, studying the rationale, bill passage, and the aftermath. Her main interest is in the presentations students do at the conclusion of the project, so she was looking for a way to save time during the research portion of the assignment. I suggested a wiki, where students in each group could compile their information across class periods collaboratively. So, although it took some effort for us to design, it saved students tremendous amounts of time since they weren’t replicating one another’s research. As a result, the class projects were the best ones this teacher had ever seen because students had much more time to focus on the presentation aspect.

That was an investment that led to greater learning down the road (not to mention the interesting group dynamics about which students learned). What these tools can do is such a transformative complement to the research process that it’s irresponsible not to use them with students.

Our Job

Sometimes librarians and teachers think dealing with these tools is not “their job.” But it is our job, because Web 2.0 tools are primarily about communication and literacies—and who else is out there teaching students about them? Reading literacies, viewing literacies, audio literacies, information literacies—all those literacies are part of any standardized test or AP test or GRE test our students may take in the future. As Barbara A. Jansen, librarian at St. Andrews Episcopal School (Texas), points out: “When I present to teachers and principals, I show them those research skills and additional skills/content that are tested on high-stakes exams. I demonstrate how by engaging in the research process, not only are students practicing tested skills, but [they] are doing so in an authentic way that will serve them long after the results of the test are forgotten.”

I think the fundamental question is not whether we should teach research skills but how we can teach them in a manner relevant to the 21st century tools and skills our students will need. Helen Burnham, a librarian participating in the Powerful Learning Practice (a learning cohort led by Will Richardson and Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach) comments: “Over the past few months, I have found that I am beginning to reevaluate my library program and am questioning whether we should be looking to completely revamp our curriculum to include more instruction in accessing and evaluating information from Web 2.0 sources. I guess I am wondering about the relevance of teaching Dewey, almanacs etc. in the manner that our curriculum is written.”

Resources and Guidance

There are resources to guide our own practices and to make the case to teachers and administrators. The American Association of School Librarians' Standards for the 21st-Century Learner is an excellent document for elaborating on the types of skills that we need to be integrating into our campus’ curriculums (www.ala.org/ala/mgrps/divs/aasl/guidelinesandstandards/learningstandards/standards.cfm). The International Society for Technology in Education’s NETS (National Educational Technology Standards) for students also offer excellent guidance about the essential skills we need to be sure our students are gaining (www.iste.org/Content/NavigationMenu/NETS/ForStudents/2007Standards/NETS_for_Students_2007_Standards.pdf).

But it is up to us as librarians to continue to understand the information needs, to adapt to the changing types of sources and research situations that new technologies bring, and to stay current in our field. Joyce Valenza pointed out in a recent blog post: “The game has changed dramatically. The changes we talk about are not bandwagons. They represent profound changes in the way we do business, the way we do libraries, the way we must educate. Teacher librarians, as information and communication specialists, must lead change in their buildings and districts or face irrelevancy. Something Darwinian is underway. Adaptation is essential. And if we are to thrive, leadership is essential. School library practice must adapt to complete shifts in the information and communication landscapes” (www.schoollibraryjournal.com/blog/1340000334/post/600051860.html).

The skills we teach are more essential in this information landscape than they ever were—whether we’re testing or not. Teaching to the tests is a one-time solution, while teaching research skills and Web 2.0 skills is a long-term investment in empowering our students so that they can, as Lehmann writes, “take the skills they have learned in classrooms and apply them to ends of their own creation.” Then we have truly empowered our students.

 

Carolyn Foote is a librarian at Westlake High School in Austin, Texas, and a past presenter at Internet@Schools. She can be reached via her blog Not So Distant Future (www.futura.edublogs.org) or her email (techno­­­­­library@gmail.com).


 
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