Planning a Voyage
While it is fashionable these days - even in educational circles - to speak of "surfing" the Net in reverential terms and tones, as if time browsing the Net were a sufficient end in itself, mere surfing can be as productive as hours spent in some arcade bombing aliens. The Internet is a vast hodge-podge of information resources thrown together with very little planning, structure or quality control. Wandering aimlessly across the Net's shimmering surface or delving haphazardly through its labyrinthine menus may be addictive, but students can easily squander hours without gaining any new insight or valuable information.
Library media specialists and teachers face a new instructional challenge: showing a generation of students how to plan and conduct meaningful research with the prodigious electronic information resources which are now becoming as widely available as ATMs. While most staff development for the Internet has hitherto focused upon how to gain access and drive the electronic highway, we should begin to focus on how to plan and execute thoughtful inquiry before, during and after our drives.
This series of six articles will trace the development of a student project stage by stage from beginning to end, emphasizing information problem-solving skills needed for success with the Internet during each stage.
This first article identifies the kinds of planning which should occur before the students even venture out onto the Net.
Effective inquiry with vast resources suggests group research rather than solo flights. This is the model in the workplace. It should become the school model. Groups make sense when exploring vastness and they also make sense when on-line time may be limited.
Readers can consult the vast literature on cooperative and collaborative learning to expand knowledge of how groups work well together on such tasks, but a few simple guidelines will save a good deal of time and trouble:
Teams of 3-4 students should be formed with the skills of the members a paramount consideration. The teacher may wish to assign class members to groups in order to provide balance, insure harmony and increase the likelihood that the teams will function productively.
Each member might be assigned a particular role (navigator, helmsperson, recorder) and all should receive a clear outline of individual and group performance expectations.
For an example, consider these team behavior rubrics developed by teachers at Kulshan Middle School in Bellingham, WA.
Or consider these rubrics outlining research expectations.
Prior to actual research, teams should have one opportunity to see the functioning of a research team, either with an appropriate videotape or through teacher modeling.
Assessment procedures should be clarified up front.
We are fighting a long school history of topical research. For decades students have been sent to the library to "find out about" some topic. This tradition has led to information gathering but little analysis or thought.
Essential questions set students and staff free from this tedious and wasteful ritual. Research becomes motivating and meaningful. An essential question has the following attributes:
Essential questions reside at the top of Bloom's Taxonomy (Bloom, 1954). They require students to EVALUATE (make a thoughtful choice between options, with the choice based upon clearly stated criteria), to SYNTHESIZE (invent a new or different version) or to ANALYZE (develop a thorough and complex understanding through skillful questioning).
Essential questions spark our curiosity and sense of wonder. They derive from some deep wish to understand some thing which matters to us.
Answers to essential questions cannot be found. They must be invented. It is something like cooking a great meal. The researcher goes out on a shopping expedition for the raw ingredients, but "the proof is in the pudding." Students must construct their own answers and make their own meaning from the information they have gathered. They create insight.
Answering such questions may take a life time, and even then, the answers may only be tentative ones. This kind of research, like good writing, should proceed over the course of several weeks, with much of the information gathering taking place outside of formally scheduled class hours.
Essential questions engage students in the kinds of real life applied problem-solving suggested by nearly every new curriculum report or outline curriculum standards such as the NCTM and the Science Standards.
Essential questions usually lend themselves well to multidisciplinary investigations, requiring that students apply the skills and perspectives of math and language arts while wrestling with content from social studies or science.
It would be best if students could learn to frame their own essential questions, but in most cases they will require several experiences with teacher generated questions before they can shed years of practice with trivial information-gathering questions.
Here are three middle school examples:
"With the economy shifting and changing, families are sometimes forced to move to entirely different regions in order to find jobs. Imagine that the families in your team are all moving from the West Coast to New England. Create a multimedia presentation which you might share with your parents recommending the best New England city to move to from the following list of cities. Your choice must be based upon the availability of jobs your parents can fill and other criteria identified and listed by your team related to categories such as recreation, education, entertainment, climate, etc."
"There is much disagreement among people who plan for student use of the Internet regarding what kinds of access should be permitted. Some people are afraid that students will come into contact with offensive materials. Others are afraid that limitations will limit student's freedoms. Imagine that your team has been assigned the task of revising the attached sample policy from School District X. Compare this policy with others from around the nation and then produce a clear list of recommended amendments, explaining your reasons for each of your suggestions. You will prepare a persuasive multimedia presentation as if speaking before the district's board of education."
"Some people think that CD-ROM edutainment products may do damage to young people. What seem to be the biggest risks people see connected with such products and what evidence can you find to dispute or substantiate their fears? Create a persuasive multimedia report which might appear on the evening news as a consumer advisory for parents."
When teams are engaged in responding to questions which require this kind of thinking, there is little danger that they will be satisfied with "surfing" the Net. After an hour of surfing they are likely to start complaining. "This isn't getting us anywhere!"
One of the first steps students take in their teams is the listing of smaller questions which will help them answer their main question. They need to understand how large questions are really the parent and grandparent of many related questions, all of which can nest within the largest question like small Russian dolls. Effective research results from formulating as many categories of related questions as possible, with each category suggesting missing questions.
When a team begins the task of selecting a city in New England, for example, they must list selection criteria related to categories such as climate. "What do we want to know about climate?" the team asks. "I don't like cold weather!" complains one member. "OK, then, what are the highs and lows and average temperatures for each city. What else do we want to know?"
The most powerful subsidiary questions are "Telling Questions." These are very carefully phrased so they go right to the heart of the matter like "smart bombs." They eliminate wandering around and aimless gathering.
Want to know which city is safest?
"What is the rate of violent crime as reported by the FBI for each of our cities and how has it changed in the past 10 years?"
For more on "Telling Questions" go to the September, 1997 issue of From Now On which offers an aticle with a focus on such questions.
Before they proceed very far, students list suppositions, pose hypotheses and make predictions - many and most of which will be revised as information is gathered. This thought process helps to provide a basis for construction of meaning.
Marty and Jacqueline Brooks' 1993 ASCD publication In Search of Understanding: the Case for Constructivist Classrooms makes a great primer describing this student thought process.
The Brooks stress the importance of students stating suppositions early in the planning process. The research team is speculating. "What do you suppose? Why do you suppose? How do you suppose?" Heeding their intuition and checking their previous experience or knowledge base, students list their best guesses, their hunches, their conjectures. These are shots in the dark. Research then brings light to the subject. Information proves illuminating. Students revise their guesswork. They reconstruct meaning.
Because the Internet is a monstrously disorganized mishmash of resources with very little quality control or reliable searching mechanisms, it is possible to waste whole days wandering around in information purgatory. Not only is much of the information unreliable, it is also difficult to find. Many of the words associated in Roget's Thesaurus (1987) with "mishmash" are perfectly apt:
confusion, welter, jumble, shambles, mix-up, medley, embroilment, imbroglio, wilderness, jungle, chaos, muddle, litter, clutter, mess, mishmash, hash, hodgepodge, ragbag, witch's brew, jumble, grab bag, Babel, bedlam, madhouse
Students must learn quite early that it pays to identify reliable resources before logging onto the Internet, using one of the many very useful hard copy guides. These guides help to point students toward good information along paths which minimize wasted menu searching.
Once a student research team has passed through the steps outlined above, they begin matching resources to questions and they begin thinking about how they will collect their findings as they proceed. Unfortunately, it is seductively easy to gather dozens of files and hundreds of pages of text while visiting the Net. If these are not properly stored from the very beginning, with at least some level of culling taking place as the search proceeds, the sorting and sifting process to be described in later articles will prove nightmarish.
A student research plan will resemble a cluster diagram with all of the subsidiary questions flowing out of the essential question and a list of sources associated with each question.
Click here for an example of a cluster diagram.
Once they venture onto the Net, students may store findings in files structured to match the questions or in a database with codes and keywords to match those questions and categories.
The value of student time spent on the Internet will increase ten fold if a great deal of time is devoted to planning the journey into Cyberspace instead of grabbing an electronic surfboard and rushing to the beach unprepared. The vastness of the resources are both a curse and a blessing, for students are ill-prepared by the past traditions of school research (which emphasized information-gathering within narrow boundaries) to handle the Internet's "wide open spaces." School media specialists and teachers who provide students with a strong foundation in questioning and planning will soon see the dividends when students return from journeys flushed with success. "Look, Mrs. Vance . . . You won't believe what we discovered!"
Continue on to Part Two
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©1995, Jamie McKenzie
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