Information has trouble living up to its own press releases. We are flooded, overwhelmed and glutted. There is no quality control. Information arrives as fast and as hot as pizza, but the sauce and the cheese are often processed, lacking in flavor or nutrition. The sausage is plastic. The mushrooms are freeze-dried. It's hard to find the real thing these days as knowledge passes for understanding. Truth proves elusive as facts and figures pile up in huge mountains.
Virtual truth is really just info-glut masquerading as wisdom. "How many pages does it have to be?" Students sometimes learn to equate length with quality. The more the better. Pile up the evidence, the sources and the quotations. Collect the thinking of others. Change one word in every sentence.
"School research" is all too often as much an oxymoron as "jumbo shrimp." Real world research involves a search for truth, some new insight, a solution to a problem or the basis for a decision. Real world research requires innovation and synthesis. Collection of information - the primary focus of many school projects - is really just a subset of a much larger skill array. Good teachers take their students out into the streams and onto the beaches to gather real data and study real issues. Or they explore the Net looking for data. This gathering of data is preceded by hypotheses and followed by analysis, synthesis and evaluation. We gather the ingredients for a great meal - and then we must cook!
Nearly all American students, as they pass through grade school and middle school, will conduct at least one "state report" or "country report." Most readers are entirely too familiar with this ritual which usually sends a student into the library to learn just about everything possible concerning a particular state or country - the climate, the resources, its products, its government, its customs, places of special interest, etc. Unfortunately, there is no riddle to be solved, no mystery, and little which might inspire curiosity. There is little similarity with real research.
In many schools, the materials in the school library on states and countries are so dated that students learn about the Connecticut of my childhood rather than the Connecticut of 1995. In one school library I visited in the past year, 59.41% of the state books were copyrighted in 1980 or earlier while 48.92% of the books about foreign nations and 62.07% of the books about science and other non-fiction topics were copyrighted in 1980 or earlier. I have repeated the same survey in many other school libraries, often in wealthy school districts, and generally found that print collections cannot provide current information to students.
With the advent of the Information Age, the state and nation report must be drastically modified so that it requires thinking rather than mere gathering. Dated reference materials must be replaced with current electronically generated sources so that students are conducting "real time" research. One possible approach is to re-shape the projects so that research teams compare and contrast several different cities in order to build a case for selecting one city over the others as a possible resident.
The assignment . . . "Your families are considering a move away from this part of the country to a medium or large city in New England. Make a list of the good things (such as parks) you and your families would expect to have available in your city of choice as well as the bad things (such as crime) you wish to avoid if possible. Select six cities and explore the quality of life as well as employment prospects for parents in each of this cities. Make a chart showing the pros and cons for each city regarding each of the key attributes you have identified as a basis for making a choice.
"When you are done collecting information and learning about the cities, make a choice and create a multimedia report to present the evidence you have found and explain the reasons for your choice. Your report should include maps, charts, pictures, text and video."
This kind of assignment catapults students to the top of Bloom's Taxonomy, where they must perform EVALUATION - the skill of making informed decisions based upon clearly stated criteria as well as balanced evidence.
Electronic information sources? CD-ROM encyclopedias are a great place to start. ENCARTA has two rather slick graphing programs built right into each state report which allow students to compare and contrast the climate and population from four states at a time. For climate, the program reports data on two cities from each state (far better than averages). The student clicks on a column such as "Average Precipitation" or "Average Snowfall" or "Clear Days" and then clicks on CHART. A chart pops into sight in a few seconds.
The population charting is even easier, but one swiftly encounters the difference between information and truth. Examine the following information reported for the state of Washington and see if you can see any problems with it: Population (thousands) Year 0 1820 0 1830 0 1840 1 1850 12 1860 24 1870 75 1880 357 1890 518 1900 1142 1910 1357 1920 1563 1930 1736 1940 2379 1950 2853 1960 3409 1970 4132 1980 4867 1990
Most of us know that there were people living here in Washington before 1850. The Lummi and the Nooksack tribes still live here in Bellingham. They just weren't counted by the Census Bureau back then.
In what other ways can the information in encyclopedias and other sources distort the truth? Unfortunately, the brevity of articles on small cities such as Burlington, Vermont would prove frustrating to most students trying to compare and contrast New England cities. Even articles on large cities like Boston provide only the vaguest sketch of the city and its life. There may be dozens of facts, names and dates, but it is virtually impossible to capture the flavor of life in the city. How can a list of art museums come close to expressing to a middle school student the value of their contents? How can they understand the impact of a dozen colleges upon the life of a city?
Scratch the surface of any of these encyclopedias and one finds little depth. The information is neutral, basic and uninspiring. Much of it might seem unworthy of mention to a thirteen year old. It certainly will not provide a basis for choice.
Would a thirteen year old care, for instance, that Burlington, Vermont is the seat of Chittenden County, was the scene of skirmishes in the War of 1812 and was named after the Burling family? The typical small city article is filled with such details. The student may be curious about shopping malls, movie theaters, parks, recreational facilities, pizza joints, etc. The encyclopedia sheds little light on these topics.
So where do our students head once they learn that these electronic encyclopedias tell us much but inform us little? CD-ROM collections of magazine articles like EBSCO's series for elementary, middle or high school students might be a very good place to capture more of a city's flavor. A quick word search for "Burlington, Vermont" scores 16 hits, but they are a decidedly mixed bag. One article is from a ski magazine listing and commenting on great ski resorts. We learn that Burlington offers 5000 beds to support 4 ski resorts. In an another article we learn that it offers a winter blues festival. Yet another reports on cooking schools around the nation and mentions the New England Culinary Institute's school near Burlington. The collection has more flavor and zest than the encyclopedia, but the truth still eludes us.
How about the Internet? Jump on the World Wide Web with WinWeb, MacWeb or Mosaic and you can find astonishing resources describing the culture of cities like Boston and Cambridge in great detail. The TRAVEL and RECREATION section leads you to a list of resources and gopher sites which offer menus like the following for Seattle, Key West, Orlando, Boston, Cambridge and many others: Cambridge Activities, Sightseeing and Tours Hotels Airport City Transportation Malls Movie Theaters Neighborhoods Night Clubs Parks and Recreation Performance Centers Sports Stadiums Ticket Agencies Visits to MIT Search current menu and below Search Marathon Sources (Providers) of Information Now we're cooking! Utah has an info-site for "Cities of Utah."
How about our original target, Burlington, Vermont? Well, even thought the University of Vermont has a WWW site, it does not yet list interesting local information. Most university sites do. It is likely that every community with an interest in tourism or the attraction of investment will soon launch such sites. Information on the local economy is available under COMMUNITY - THE WORKPLACE.
I found databases for Chittenden County, Vermont (remember that the encyclopedia taught us that Burlington is its county seat?). One table reports Personal Income and Earnings by Major Industry. Additional economic data may be found from the folks in the Census Dept.
Today's students may sit down to an information feast. Unfortunately, much of the information is not so hot after all. Those of us who are responsible for surfing lessons must help students to discriminate among the sources. It is far to easy to collect hundreds of pages which provide little insight, add no understanding and might actually distort reality rather than sharpen it.