Introduction: After the Planning - The Hunt
The previous article stressed the importance of framing research projects around essential questions instead of topics, and it outlined ways to optimize students' effectiveness by planning before they actually venture onto the Net. This chapter and the next will emphasize "Great Hunting" as a theme, highlighting research skills and practices which will contribute to the development of insight.
1. Hunting with an Open Mind
What is an open mind?
- A mind which welcomes new ideas.
- A mind which invites new ideas in for a visit.
- A mind which introduces new ideas to the company which has already arrived.
- A mind which is most comfortable in mixed company.
- A mind which prizes silence and reflection.
- A mind which recognizes that later is often better than sooner.
- (McKenzie, 1993)
An open mind is not the same as an empty mind. An open mind is one leaning toward meaning, hungry for connections, avidly seeking patterns and insight. An open mind is filled with great questions - questions spawned by curiosity, questions planned by the research team, questions which keep giving birth to new ones as the research proceeds and the puzzle develops. The old research was content with filling an empty mind. "Go find out about!"
Researching used to be mere gathering. Hunting, on the other hand, suggests a more thoughtful and more aggressive approach - one imbued with the tension arising from the building of meaning out of scattered pieces and what seems all too often like non-sense.
This is no mere collecting. It is collection with a purpose. The bits and pieces, the raw data, the summaries and the clues one chooses to keep are all meant to help solve the jigsaw puzzle presented by the team's essential question.
Take the middle school project which asks a team to select a New England city to which their families might move. The old way of studying a state or city required mere listings of products or other attributes. The new research requires sifting through employment data to assess how healthy various job sectors might be over the next decade. It's not enough to find that there are jobs in your parents' skill areas. The team must evaluate whether there are openings and whether or not the need for those jobs will grow or decline. Even then the work is not done. How does this city compare with the other four cities under investigation?
It is no longer sufficient to list the art museums or the parks or the sports teams. One must assess the quality of each as it relates to the family values and preferences. What good is a museum with a weak collection of dowdy landscapes? What good is a park too dangerous to enter in broad daylight? What good is a sports team which never scores?
An open mind is essential because it provides the spirit, the momentum, and the drive for the research team to push through the info-glut so often typical of the Internet. An open-minded researcher learns to "peer inward" to see what is missing, what is unknown, what needs discovering.
The old research was additive. The student did not need to re-examine what she or he knew or was learning. There was no need to look within and challenge old thinking. The student cast a net for facts.
The search for insight requires continual re-examination of old beliefs, prior knowledge and stored information in order to re-construct, rearrange and synthesize the elements into new meanings.
Students rarely appear on the classroom doorstep with open minds. While they may have encountered some classes where this kind of thinking is encouraged, the basic culture of schools created by the test-makers and the textbook makers is dedicated to the memorization rather than the making of meaning. If a teacher values student-centered learning, it will often be necessary to spend some time exploring the difference between an empty and an open mind.
II. Employing Effective Keyword Searches
Many electronic information products provide keyword searching capabilities, but few schools have instituted effective student training experiences which would help them become skillful searchers. Without such skills, info-glut will present a nearly insurmountable obstacle in many sectors of the Internet.
Students need to learn all of the following before trying keyword searches on the Net. Many can be practiced on CD-ROM encyclopedias or with article collections like EBSCO's.
1. LOGICAL OPERATORS - These can direct and narrow a search toward useful sources:
AND - When placed between two words (salmon AND fisheries) the program searches for documents which contain BOTH words anywhere in the document, unless the software automatically looks within a certain boundary (called "proximity") such as the same sentence or the same paragraph or the same section. This setting can usually be changed, and students must learn how their results will shift according to how they set the proximity.
NEAR - When placed between two words (salmon NEAR fisheries) the program searches for documents which contain those words within a certain word range of each other. Many programs are set by default at 50 words but can usually be reset by the searcher. If students play with various settings, they may see vastly different search results. Just because two words appear in the same article does not mean they are related to each other meaningfully. If they are within 10 words, the odds improve that they are related.
OR - This operator has the often unfortunate tendency to throw too big a net and is generally discouraged, but there are some wonderful times to use it. When placed between two words (salmon OR fisheries) the program searches for documents which contain either of those words. This will usually return too large a sample unless the OR search is combined with an AND search, with the first word being fairly broad and the OR being used with a series of related words which are within parentheses - cf. "salmon and (conservation OR extinct OR preservation)"
NOT - This operator helps to eliminate unwanted articles. When placed between two words (salmon NOT Atlantic) the program searches for articles which do not contain the first but not the second word.
2. TRUNCATION - Students learn to search for the base of a word and any of its variations. Each program may have a different symbol. Some use a question mark (?) and others use an asterisk (*). "Compute*" finds 15 articles in my electronic dictionary:
computer computerize computerdom
computerist computerese computerized
3. WILD CARDS - Some programs allow the searcher to insert a symbol inside a word which can stand for any letter(s). "Bl?nd" finds words like the following in my electronic dictionary:
bland blend blind
blond blent moonblind
4. THESAURUS - Because most students do not have sufficient vocabularies to call up the words which might produce the best "hits," we might show them how to generate good lists with the thesaurus which now accompanies most good word processing programs. Looking for articles which cover strategies to protect the salmon harvest? "Conservation," the thesaurus tells us, might be replaced by related words such as:
preservation protection saving deliverance conservationism conservancy
ecology management perpetuation prolongation preserve sanctuary
refuge protected species
5. GRAMMAR - Like it or not, if students know the difference between nouns, verbs and adjectives, their searching may be more powerful, especially if the particular search software looks just at titles rather than providing full text searching. Nouns are far more apt to produce good results with searches on the Internet because nouns are more apt to appear in the titles which you are searching.
6. INTUITIVE PLAY - Successful searching is a trial-and-error process of trying out various word combinations until the searcher hits "pay dirt." Sometimes the most logically and analytically sound word searches turn up nothing worth reading. If early efforts turn up just a handful of articles, it often pays to skim those articles looking for unusual words that the searcher might never have thought of using. "Fisheries" is a word I discovered in this manner - a word outside my normal usage which led to many other (often Canadian) articles about salmon conservation efforts.
III. Navigating in the Dark
Essential questions almost always require students to explore the unknown - darkness. They will spend their time striving for illumination. They will "cast light" upon their subject.
It is no accident that many boat chartering companies refuse to allow their customers to navigate in the dark. Darkness shifts perception and creates confusing illusions.
Accustomed to the old kind of research which required little navigating, little searching and little uncertainty, many students may find the process frustrating and irritating. They may demand the informational equivalent of fast food . . .
"Could you just tell us where to look!"
"Just what are we looking for?"
The print encyclopedia was the Big Mac of school research.
Too much school research has been focused on moving around what we already know. This requires no student thought. Its main attraction is ease.
School research has too often been like the man searching for his lost car keys under a street lamp. When a passerby asks if he lost his keys nearby, the man says, "No. But I'm looking here because the light is good." Because this kind of research can be frustrating, teachers might prepare students for the emotional aspects by appealing to their sense of adventure and exploration, drawing parallels with the great inventors and explorers of human history.
IV. Navigating in the Mud
The Internet offers information mudflats - vast expanses of soft data and opinion which can bog us down and slow our search for truth. Students must learn to skirt the shoals unless they are seeking shellfish buried within. Just as students can bog down on certain test items and miserably fail a test, they can spend too long in parts of the Internet which have little to offer. The best way to navigate in the mud, of course, is to avoid it or get out of it. Reliance upon printed guides is one strategy. Another is to learn how types of resources are titled - allowing the student to skip over most e-mail messages, for example, if seeking expertise, unless the messages are located safely within a bulletin board area restricted to experts.
V. Identifying the Unknowns
As the research team begins to collect useful information, the puzzle represented by the original question should begin to take shape - even though the shape may keep shifting with the addition of each new insight. Considering essential questions is a bit like peering into a kaleidoscope. As the research proceeds, it is as if someone is turning the tube and shifting the perspective.
The team should frequently re-visit, review and revise the original research plan which contained the list of questions and information targets. As they begin to piece together fragments into meaningful combinations, what they have gathered will begin to give shape to what is missing. The appearance of certain categories, for example, will suggest missing members of those categories as well as missing categories. Just as the early assembled pieces of a jigsaw puzzle suggest the shape of those pieces which need to be added next, early research begin to suggest later research.
"What don't we know now . . . that we didn't know we didn't know? And where do we find it?"
Hunting for good information on the Internet requires a great deal of skill as well as the willingness to heed intuition. Once the fad has passed and the Internet is as much a part of everyday life as TV advertising, the glamour will wear off and mere surfing will hold little appeal. The value of the Internet for students will depend greatly upon the kinds of information problem-solving skills they possess and employ. Open minds equipped with navigational ability will find visits to the Internet incredibly rewarding.
Continue on to Part Three
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©1995, Jamie McKenzie
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