Creating Needles from Haystacks
Now that we have considered hunting, it is time to consider how students might begin to sort and sift the information they gather.
It has become so easy to find and collect data that students can save hundreds of pages in a matter of moments. I recently (in 1995) downloaded the entire text of Moby Dick, by accident, in about five minutes while trying to copy a single page. We must guide students to understand that abundance and volume may have little connection with wisdom and insight. To achieve insight, students must learn to fashion needles from haystacks. It is less a matter of finding answers than the challenge of constructing them from bits and pieces, odds and ends.
The wise researcher designs a way to collect the most meaningful fragments, information and ideas in an easily searchable, compact location. For decades we have been showing students how to accomplish this task with index cards, but the time has come to replace cards with word processing or database files which support the culling process. No more drilling holes through note cards!
Each time a student or team of students finds worthwhile information, the best parts should be saved in the following manner in order to preserve the citation and focus on the most valuable elements:
In the case of the students working as teams to compare and contrast five cities in New England with an eye toward selecting one for relocation, the dababase can be set up in advance with 75-100 records partially completed to help to guide the hunting outlined in the previous chapters as well as the sorting which occurs later.
The students paste the names of the five cities in the SUBJECT field until there are 20 records for each city. They then paste in several KEYWORDS for each city which match the selection criteria agreed upon by the team. If a team wanted a city . . .
- With a low crime rate . . . Keyword=Crime
- With good colleges . . . Keyword=College
- With winning sports teams . . . Keyword=Sports
- With safe and inviting parks Keyword=Parks
- With attractive shopping Keyword=Shopping
- With employment opportunity Keyword=Jobs
- With activities for teenagers Keyword=Entertainment
While hunting, then, students take the records (just like index cards) for particular cities (all of Portland) or particular keywords (crime in all 5 cities) and hunt for information which will provide a basis for choice. Once they find good information, they may paste sentences, key ideas and valuable items into the ABSTRACT field, noting the source information (TITLE, AUTHOR, SOURCE, DATE, PAGE, etc.) in the other fields.
Note: Cutting and Pasting can be the enemy of thinking and reading! Make sure your students are selective in their collecting. Better to paraphrase than cut and paste.
A similar process may be used with a word processing file, but it will prove far less valuable when it comes time to analyze and synthesize the findings. It is far more difficult to sort and sift and search the findings.
Because it is now quite easy to locate and download hundreds of pages of information, we must place a high priority on showing students how to save the "right stuff," discarding that which is irrelevant or unlikely to contribute to understanding.
The student who visits the Boston or the Cambridge World Wide Web sites hoping to learn about colleges, quickly finds a large list:
Boston University - Harvard - Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School of Government - Lesley College - MIT- School of The Museum of Fine Arts -Northeastern University -Tufts University - Wellesley College
The list can be pasted in the ABSTRACT of one Cambridge record. But so what? How much does this list really mean to a 13 year old? How much do they now know about the quality of these colleges and universities?
It will take much further reading, considering and evaluating to explore the quality question. A list says little in itself. With the World Wide Web, each item is a button. "Click" on Boston University and the student finds an overwhelming amount of information, much of it carefully crafted by skill marketing folks who wish to make the campus appear safe and attractive.
There is no longer any shortage of fresh and pertinent data to review. The student has a much deeper basis for asking whether the city offers good educational opportunities.
As the research proceeds, the students cull the essential, meaningful and reliable data. The garbage is set aside, compacted and discarded. The student establishes criteria for reliability and applies them to separate wheat from chaff. Key action verbs: choose, pick, select, separate, sift, and single out.
As students explores new resources, they continually ask screening and compacting questions:
Screening and Compacting Questions
"Is this data worth keeping?"
"Will this information shed light on our question?"
"Is this information reliable?"
"How much of this information do I need to place in my database?"
"How can I summarize the best ideas?"
"Are there any especially good quotations to paste in the abstract field?
In the process of collecting data, which may arrive in graphic forms (pictures, charts and tables), as text or as numerical data, students must begin organizing and re-organizing the data in order to find patterns and relationships. This process is the foundation for analysis and synthesis. Key action verbs: align, arrange, array, assort, catalog, categorize, class, classify, cluster, compile, file, grade, group, layout, line up, list, order, organize, outline, pigeonhole, place, position, prioritize, program, rank, stack, tabulate. Associated tasks: bracket, collate, compare, contrast, correlate, equate, liken, match, relate.
The power of the computer becomes evident when the team of students has amassed some 500-600 forms in their database. This would be a pretty large and unmanageable stack of index cards, but when it comes time to review the information on crime, the students turn to the TOOLs menu of Microsoft Works 4.0 where they may select MATCH RECORDS. If they type "crime" in the resulting space, the computer locates every record containing the word "crime" and then they may sort those records by city selecting SORT from the TOOLs menu.
Five students may each specialize in particular aspects of a complex research assignment yet blend their research data back into a single database, allowing for a shuffling, sorting and reshuffling of the data depending upon which question the team wishes to consider as they move past the gathering stage to the construction of insight.
In the case of the New England city project, the hunters return from their trips out onto the Web with full sacks of "game." They must now begin the hard work of analyzing their findings so as to compare and contrast the five cities with regard to the seven criteria mentioned at the beginning of this article (Crime-College-Sports-Parks-Shopping-Jobs-Entertainment).
Insight is fashioned from information. Good questions serve much like the sculptor's hands working in clay, shaping the raw material until recognizable shapes begin to emerge. Now that we have gathered several hundred records and carefully recorded them in a file, we ask, "So what? What are the implications?" The student approaches understanding - "the big picture" - by undertaking many of the following actions: clarify, interpret, construe, deduce, derive, educe, gather, glean, infer, interpret, surmise, examine, probe, and unravel.
Once the team of students has gathered 40-50 news stories, articles, statistical tables and comments regarding crime in the 5 New England cities, they must ask what they can "glean" from this collection of information which will guide their choice of a city.
Which city is most dangerous? Least dangerous? Is there enough difference for crime to be a deciding factor, or are all 5 cities nearly equivalent? Does crime emerge as a major issue, or does it drop into the background? Are there strategies (neighborhoods) which would make living in the city safe enough despite the crime rates?
Under the old research paradigm, it was enough to gather and collect. Now we place a premium on the quality of the information gathered, on the way it is organized to support reflection, and on the care with which it is analyzed.
One of the most important questions to ask during this stage is the "sufficiency" question. "Do we have enough information to proceed with our conclusions and report? Or do we need to make more visits to the Internet and the school media center to fill in the missing information?" It would be rare for most groups to move through the six stages of the research cycle without returning and cycling back several more times.
The analysis students perform during this stage of their research leads naturally to the next stage, the regrouping of information which will serve as the basis for synthesis.
Continue on to Part Five.
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©1995, Jamie McKenzie
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