More Great Hunting
Introduction: Extending the Hunt
The preceding two articles illustrated how student teams may design research projects around essential questions, how they must plan in advance of accessing the Net, and how they can gather information with an open mind intent upon developing insight. Research requires students to re-examine old beliefs, prior knowledge and stored information in order to reconstruct, rarrange and synthesize the elements into new meaning.
This chapter extends the theme of "hunting" beyond the keyword searching and navigating outlined in the previous chapter.
I. Learning on the run
The old kind of school research required little new thinking as the gathering proceeded. The main challenge was finding "the right stuff." There were certain facts - such as the primary raw materials available in Kenya - which one sought, captured (on index cards) and then added to one's collection. It was a bit like filling the cages of a zoo.
Because certain school research assignments have been repeated for decades, many of the information products (such as encyclopedias) aimed at the school market carefully structured their information to conform to such assignments. The typical state or country article in an encyclopedia is laid out in sections which match perfectly with the research categories I was assigned as a student in 1960. A decade later, as a young social studies teacher, I passed along the ritual. In schools I visit today, I can find the same exercise being repeated.
Which came first, it is fair to ask, the encyclopedia or the report?
Now the challenge is changing dramatically as mega-bytes of information scroll past student researchers. One is reminded of grey wolf packs or Sioux braves on horseback hunting great herds of migrating bison or elk. Which of the thousands of beasts thundering past are worth attacking? What's the best strategy to finish the day feasting?
The student who is trying to compare the employment opportunities or colleges in five New England cities using the US Census or the CityNet resources on the World Wide Web will not find answers at these sites waiting in neatly wrapped packages ready for downloading and capture. Raw data and information, yes. Answers, no.
Learning on the run requires students to change their way of thinking as well as their thinking itself as they are in the act of scanning and gathering the data.
Because each site organizes its information differently, students must learn strategies which will work for each site. In the case of the U.S. Census, for example, the software will require the information consumer to answer a series of questions in order to identify the geographical entity (County? City?) and the type of data desired.
Once the student gains acces to the data, itself, the data will often appear in forms and formats which do little to support insight. The designer of the CityNet pages for Cambridge may have compiled dozens of pages about dozens of colleges, but the data will prove overwhelming and so immense as to obscure insight. The student learns that there are many colleges, but how do they compare with the higher education opportunities in Bennington?
How does one even think about colleges? Is it better to have many colleges in a city or just one great one? How do you know if Harvard is better than Bennington? How much of the information on the CityNet is written by city promoters intent on luring tourist dollars, students and new citizens? Which information can be trusted?
Real research begins with considerable ignorance about the topic being studied. If the question is really challenging, chances are the research team had difficulty developing a research plan.
Learning on the run is the process (and skill) of revising strategies, questions and resources while conducting the research. Growing insight shifts the researchers' views of how and what to explore.
II. Changing course
The journey will lead up blind canyons and sometimes prove frustrating. Effective exploration may require the energy and flexibility of a pin ball jumping and bouncing around at incredible speed. Because the Internet offers dozens of seemingly promising sites which all too often prove disappointing, students must learn to assess the value of sites right away without wasting time on extended visits. They must move on quickly to better sites if the information seems weak.
While the first article in this series argued the value of advance planning and identification of good sites, the authors of printed guides to the Internet are fallible. They cannot possibly be sufficiently expert in all categories to accurately weigh the validity and credibility of all the sites listed. Students will still encounter questionable resources. Before they wade around for half an hour, they should first scan the site and ask if it looks promising.
III. Exploiting serendipity
The American Heritage Dictionary defines serendipity as "The faculty of making fortunate discoveries by accident." If one is too linear, too sequential, too logical and too intent on supporting what one already knows, one overlooks the clues which might lead to surprising new perspectives. One must be "on the lookout" for surprise or it can slide right by unnoticed. It turns out that the discoveries are not accidental after all. They just seem surprising because they differ markedly from previous ways of thinking and seeing.
To the open-minded, the Internet offers surprise after surprise. The breadth and often illogical structure of its offerings are both a curse and a blessing. The disorganization can prove frustrating and inefficient, but the hodge-podge is often delightfully inspirational.
"I never would have dreamed . . . "
Especially for research aimed at inventing or discovering something new, serendipity is a great boost to thinking.
Corporate trainers from groups like Synetics devote long hours teaching groups to develop novel solutions to problems with stategies which intentionally take people beyond their normal ways of thinking.
Those who wish to restore the salmon harvest may learn more from efforts to protect the East African rhino than by studying what has been done for (or to) salmon so far in the Northwest. In searching for articles including the word "extinction," the student picks up the rhino article "by accident."
The old model for school research ignores and discards the rhino article. The new model says, "Let's give it a try." Perhaps there's an idea or strategy in there which would work for salmon that we haven't tried.
Even though our culture often conspires to protect us from surprise, much of the power of the Internet is to help us escape the boxes within which we live. We have carefully screened out information most of our lives. We are too often the prisoners of our cultures, our educational experiences and our biases. The Internet may set us free or reinforce us narrow-minded thinking. The choice is ours.
Research aimed at solving problems (restoring the salmon harvest) or making thoughtful decisions (selecting a city) thrives on surprise, but schools have too long striven to eliminate surprise from the school day. An information society requires workers and citizens who can challenge the old mind-sets and paradigms, inventing new approaches to adapt to a turbulent and rapidly changing world.
IV. Asking for help
Help menus are meant to expand our capabilities and improve our efficiency before we get in trouble. Unfortunately, many people are reluctant to employ the help menus until they are hopelessly mired in problems.
The Internet is actually made up of many information centers, each of which may have its own software with its own peculiar or unique set of rules and procedures. Ranging through dozens of different information sources the searcher often encounters conflicting and often confusing command structures. To prevent gridlock and wasted time, it makes sense to browse the help menu of these sources early in the visit, figuring out just what is and is not possible. "You mean I could have saved that file? If only I had known!"
Even though HELP is prominently displayed on most search engine menus, many users never read through the instructions and discover the powerful features which can help reduce the mountain of "hits" and target the more valuable sites.
We need to encourage students to check out the help menu first thing upon arriving at a site. Exploring Internet sites without checking out the help menu is like driving a standard transmission car without learning to shift.
V. Asking for directions
Some people will drive around totally lost for an hour before they will stop and ask directions. This same approach on the Internet gives new meaning to the word "lost." The potential for wasted time "circling the block" is magnifed a hundred fold.
It makes sense to have several Internet guides at the ready and a friend to call when lost. Commentators claim that the Internet is often "arcane." Many of the people who have organized the menus, the pages and the directories seem to have passed up any courses in logic. They often fail to organize the resources with any structure that would guide us toward information in a logical manner. Unclear labels and titles for files make matters worse.
One way to reduce the threat that the Internet will prove Sphinx-like or enigmatic is to explore with a friendly guide close to hand, whether that guide be printed or human. Because many students may be unaccustomed to reaching out for such assistance and the old competitive model did little to promote cooperation, teachers and library media specialists face quite a challenge teaching this generation to stop and ask before they are lost.
Skillful hunting or fishing are each probaly more appropriate as metaphors for student research on the Internet than the still popular reference to surfing. Surfing may capture the essence of recreational use of the Internet, but it fails to encompass the array of strategies required for students to find good information upon which new insights may be grounded. Now that we have considered that array of strategies, it is time to move to a consideration of how students might begin to sort and sift the information they have gathered.
Continue on to Part Four.
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©1995, Jamie McKenzie
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