04 May 2011

It's research paper time!

Friends and loyal readers of the BlazeBlog, it's that most wonderful time of the year. It's the end of second semester. All around the nation, young people are buckling down for that rite of passage, the research paper. I've written before about how one extraordinary teacher and her research assignment shaped me, so it's clear how much value I think there is in research, especially at the high school level.

However, what you and I (depending on your age) think of as research is a very different animal process than what today's students undertake as "research". You and I, being old fogeys, actually had to pore through sources to find research or anecdotes that helped to support our thesises theses ideas. It was a process that, because we were reading many different works, exposed us to many sides of the issue. The process of research was time consuming and arduous. That's what made it good for us.

Today (and I realize how much this seems like me yelling "GET OFF MY LAWN!"), students think that research is synonymous with "Google". I'm sure that you understand most of the problems that come from this assumption, but I'd like to at least touch on them briefly:

1. Problem the first: People let a machine do their thinking for them. Now, the people that have written the search algorithms are exceptionally intelligent. However, the people taking advantage of that intelligence by using Google to do "research" are actually getting dumber. They don't ever work through the process. That's one of the biggest changes I've seen in students in the last decade. Assignments that used to be about process are now about results. Surely the testing culture is partially to blame for this, but some of it is the ease with which Google provides us information.

Also, this dependence on a machine is scary. It reveals how quickly people are willing to give up their own thinking and submit to the almighty machines. It's one thing for the young and the foolish to be led astray by dogmatic rants on cable propaganda billed as "news". It's scarier yet when people will give away the task of thinking to a machine. SkyNet is real, but it's smart enough to call itself "Google". (I for one welcome our computer overlords.)

2. Problem the second: Young people learning to do research have a very hard time determining what is a good source and what is crap. This has always been true, but Google doesn't sort by quality, and that compounds the problem, because students are lazy, and they just skim the first two or three Google results. That's how I end up getting answers that confuse the National Defense Education Act with the North Dakota Education Association. You can see the problem here. Students are so result oriented that they fail to even try to determine if their answer makes sense. Google has North Dakota Education Association as the top answer, that must be correct.

I know that this is hardly ground breaking. In fact, our AP Language and Composition teacher uses this article about it at the beginning of his unit on research. I know that I only have my old man ranting about it to try and point toward any sort of proof that Google is making kids dumber.

But let's be honest, nobody is reading this blog because they think I'm ground-breaking. They read, I think, because it's pretty short, and pretty simple. Oh, and because there are some chuckles along the way.

So what are today's chuckles?

First, there's the way I got that link to the Atlantic article.

Second, there's the proof that the algorithm writers aren't perfect yet. For proof, I offer this picture from my Shameless Facebook Plug of the BlazeBlog's gas price post.

Look at the movie they're plugging in the ads. I wonder what the Blaze Blog thinks of Waiting for Superman.

Oh, wait, I don't wonder that at all......


  1. I didn't learn how to do real research until I reached the college level. The ability to research effectively is a pretty vital skill, not just in terms of differentiation of sources but also the labor intensity of it. Microfilm and browsing the stacks will often lead to better sources than Google. Even learning how to use Boolean phrases correctly is a skill high school students should learn before graduation.

    My current research topic is on the appropriation of Eastern European dissidents, specifically Solzhenitsyn, by the neoconservative movement in the United States.

  2. I will be amongst the first to admit that schools today do a terrible job of teaching research skills. We have become so focused on testing, and getting results that we have ignored teaching such vital skills, because they take so long. I find that I only actually teach research skills in advanced classes, once the AP test has passed.

    We similar problems out of the elementary schools, where skills like penmanship are sacrificed so that kids can take more standardized tests, which teach them no real useful skills.

    Alas, that is a post for another day, I think...

  3. I teach at a middle school. When I have my students do the dreaded final research paper, we go to the computer lab together. I have a website for them with links to the sources they are allowed to use. I think this is good for their level.

    I teach them what plagiarism is and how to avoid it. I teach them how to cite their sources and how to make a bibliography, but I don't think 11 to 13 year olds are ready to make a value judgment on a source of information.