the educational technology journal

Vol 18|No 1|September 2008
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Beyond Cut-and-Paste:
Engaging Students
in Wrestling
with Questions of Import

By Jamie McKenzie, ©2008, all rights reserved.
About author

We are suffering here and there from a cut-and-paste culture bred by the ease with which any of us can locate and save information. Sadly, Google and its relatives give us all a false sense of security and wisdom as we can search for something as elusive as "the truth" and Google delivers an answer in less than ten seconds.

Enter "the truth" in Google, elect "I'm Feeling Lucky" and with little hesitation or needless strain or effort we have our answer. You can find "the truth" at http://www.thetruth.com/ according to Google.

Would that it were so easy!

Schools and districts committed to 21st Century Skills as well as the standards of AASL and ISTE must confront this cut-and-paste culture head-on, eliminating those classroom practices that encourage and promote such lazy thinking and research, replacing them with activities that are more challenging and more worthwhile.

Eliminate Topical Research Rituals

The first step in fighting against simple cut-and-paste thinking is to gather all teachers together to discuss and adopt a school-wide policy outlawing the assignment of topical research projects.

"Students in this school will conduct research on questions of import that require they make answers rather than find them. We will no longer assign topical research or accept papers that are little more than a rehash of other people's ideas and thinking."

This policy means an end to long scrolling lists like the one below:

Go find out about . . .

Captain James Cook
Captain Matthew Flinders
Captain George Vancouver
Captain William Bligh
Fletcher Christian
The mutiny on the Bounty
New Zealand
The Pacific Ocean
The Admiralty

Replica of HMS the Bounty used in film
© 2007, Jamie McKenzie

This kind of list is an invitation to copy-and-paste, scoop and smush. The lack of defining and challenging questions to shape the research permits a HUGE range of activities. The mere gathering of information is pretty much guaranteed by going topical. The implied value of such gathering is the mistaken notion that one gains in understanding as one's piles of information grow in size. Sadly, it is possible to lose ground and find oneself fogged in by such collections - the "poverty of abundance."
Golden Gate Bridge in fog
© Jamie McKenzie

Replacing Topical Research with Questions of Import

Questions of import usually require that students wrestle with difficult challenges and build their own answers rather than relying upon the thinking of others.

Example: Which of the following captains was the best at navigation?

  • Captain James Cook
  • Captain Matthew Flinders
  • Captain George Vancouver
  • Captain William Bligh

The above question requires the collection and weighing of evidence to substantiate a well-considered judgment. Such comparison challenges the student at the top of Bloom's Taxonomy - the skill of evaluation. It mirrors the type of demanding reading comprehension questions found on the NAEP Test (National Assessment of Educational Progress.)

What causes the main character to do _____? Use evidence from the story in your response.
How do you think the character’s actions might be different today? Support your response with evidence from the story.

For students to build an answer to this question about the relative navigational skill of the captains, they must go past the simple judgments and opinions to be found in Wikipedia, so-called professional encyclopedias and even some national library sites. Reliance upon secondary sources means the student need not wrestle with evidence and judgment.

According to material written about Captain James Cook on the Canadian National Library site . . .

"Many believe that James Cook was the greatest ocean explorer ever to have lived, and that he mapped more of the world than any other person. It cannot be denied that he combined great qualities of seamanship, leadership and navigational skill."

If the student copies and pastes this section, it is unsubstantiated opinion, strongly worded but weakly supported.

To build their own answers, students must collect specific examples of the navigational challenges each captain faced and ultimately passed or failed, checking historical records such as ship's logs and records from the Admiralty. For example, when Bligh was abandoned in a small boat by the mutineers and managed to sail more than a thousand miles across the open Pacific, what does that prove?

For each captain, the student must consider the following questions (among others), gather the facts and then compare and contrast the records of each:

Did he know how to use all the best instruments of his time?
Did he keep a careful log?
Did he usually know where they were?
Did he ever get lost?
Did he seem to know what he was doing?
Did his ships have to wander around very much?
Did he stay clear of known hazards?
Did he know how to make the best of prevailing winds?
Did he know when to ask for directions?

This type of research is much more demanding than copy-and-paste research, but ultimately more rewarding and more empowering because it equips students to wrestle with the real issues of their own lives.

21st Century Skills

Schools and districts that have adopted the 21st Century Skills model for schooling will find this kind of research on target, especially for the sections on Information Literacy, Media Literacy and ICT (Information, Communications & Technology) Literacy:

  • Using digital technology, communication tools and/or networks appropriately to access, manage, integrate, evaluate, and create information in order to function in a knowledge economy
  • Using technology as a tool to research, organize, evaluate and communicate information, and the possession of a fundamental understanding of the ethical/legal issues surrounding the access and use of information

Standards from AASL and ISTE

New standards from the American School Librarians and ISTE both call for students to do more than gather information when they research.  They set the expectation that students develop good new ideas, not just scoop and smush, copy and paste.  

Learners use skills, resources and tools to:

1. Inquire, think critically, and gain knowledge.
2. Draw conclusions, make informed decisions, apply knowledge to new situations, and create new knowledge.
3. Share knowledge and participate ethically and productively as members of our democratic society.
4. Pursue personal and aesthetic growth.

AASL Standards for the 21st-Century Learner

Additional Resources

FNO has been urging a shift to questions of import and an end to topical research for years. The articles listed below were written to help schools and teachers make the transition to more demanding types of questions and research.

In addition to the articles listed above, Learning to Question to Wonder to Learn sets out a detailed approach to this kind of research.

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