Sunday, April 29, 2018

Databases and the Research Process

We begin in databases for student research. Why use a database?

  • Sources have been vetted. (i.e. They have been checked by experts for accuracy and reliability)
  • Many sources in databases are not available on the Internet. They are behind a paywall.
  • Databases have been purchased with student projects in mind. (i.e. I purchase what I know they need)
  • Sources within the database are often written on a student level, with varying lexiles (readability) for varying student needs.
  • Databases provide multiple types of sources in a neat package, including magazine articles, reference books, academic journals, videos and audios
  • College-bound students will use databases for academic research. Acquainting students with database use now will save them from head-ache, heart-ache and possibly failure post-secondary school.
I've created several YouTube videos to help my students with database searching, combining information about planning for our search (which I discussed in my last blog post) with the beginning of the actual research process. Some learners may absorb information better from a video than lecture style in the classroom; they may benefit from a video that they can replay several times. This is a sample of one of my database training videos on YouTube.

Students learn about authority as part of their 9th grade English research project at my high school. Databases help ease them into understanding what a good source looks like before we unleash them on the Internet. (In my next post, I will talk more about Internet searching and high school students.) We require students to find one database article, one book source. (Yes, they actually need to touch a printed book), one Internet source, and one source of their choice. Their free choice is often a second database source as information in the databases on their subjects is plentiful and easy to find in comparison to finding a good Internet source via Google.

Where a college can have dozens of databases for student use, with many specific databases for varied majors and professions, high school databases are more limited. We use several including varied EBSCO databases, varied Galenet databases, and SIRS. Students must learn which databases suit their needs, gaining an understanding of how information is organized and shared. The goal is for students to understand that information comes from somewhere. I find that few students think about sources before they reach me. In the 21st century, information is just at their fingertips. I want students to realize that people give information form in their writing, video creation, and through images. People have varied expertise. Sources are of varying quality. You must carefully choose what kind of source you should use to support your point as a researcher or when you need to make critical decisions.

All-in-all, databases provide a container for information in various forms. While a pay-database contains information with varied degrees of authority, information has been reviewed prior to inclusion in the tool. While anyone can post anything on the Internet, databases are more selective, providing a good starting place for kids to think about information quality, quantity, and usefulness.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Research as a Process

"When you are given a research assignment, how many of you Google a question and take information from the top 5 Google results to write your paper?" The kids in the classroom look at me with saucer eyes. Some glance from side to side at their peers and slowly hands begin to raise. I shoot my hand into the air, though I don't think I have ever "Googled" a question. That not how we were taught in the relatively olden days. You would thumb through the card catalog looking for keywords. Moving to databases was a natural shift for us. Keyword and subject searching still ruled in the 90s. "It's okay," I say. "Almost everyone does it. You can be honest. I'm just going to teach you a better way today. You need to promise me that you will try my way. For this project, the process of finding the answers is just as important, more important, than the answers you find."

It's all about the process and inquiry. To teach information literacy, you must teach process and you must teach (as funny as it sounds) curiosity. 21st century kids want to jump to the answer. They are accustomed to Siri pulling an answer from mysterious parts and handing it to them on a silver platter. It doesn't necessarily matter if it is the right answer; It is an answer. People often think that's all they need. One thing we are lacking as a society (in general and happening only recently) is a natural sense of curiosity.
We have forgotten how to ask questions, allowing our search engines and news feeds to do the work of finding answers for us without question. Instead we should:
  • use questions to help us think critically
  • question and seek multiple points of view 
  • not only question ideas of others, but also question our own ideas
  • allow questioning to propel us toward a sound answer, not just any answer
We must teach curiosity as tied to process and inquiry. That's what we do for "The Shakespeare Project." This is a grade 9 assignment that reaches all students and encourages them to ask questions, identify keywords, perform close reading, and build skills for more in-depth research assignments as they continue through high school. Five years ago, I began collaborating with colleagues and re-molding this assignment into one focused on process - walking kids through it in baby steps.  We help the kids pay attention to their thoughts about what they are researching, how they are finding information, how their inquiry improves over the course of the project. We begin with a planning stage through the following:

  1.  Write a sentence explaining your topic. Underline the keywords. e.g. I am researching Life in Shakespeare’s London, which includes the occupations and treatment of workers in Elizabethan England.
  2. Write synonyms for your underlined words and phrases. e.g. "16th century," Renaissance, sixteenth century, jobs, work
  3. Write some questions you have about the topic. Be sure to broaden and narrow your focus. e.g.
  • What kinds of jobs did people have in Elizabethan England?
  • How much were they paid?
  • Were they treated well?
  • How many hours did they work and how much were they paid?
As students research, they are encouraged to continually note new words that help them find new answers. They are assessed based on continued questioning of their own ideas and the resources they find.

The process of inquiry is the key to success. In my next post. I will talk about the tools we use to propel research and how this early inquiry or planning piece sets the stage for finding solid answers.