On the few occasions (at least recently, given my bad case of end-of-the-semester-itis and the recent home renovation work I’ve been doing) that I’ve checked my WordPress dashboard stats, etc., I’ve found it interesting to look at the search terms that people use to find my site and what other websites end up directing them here. Oftentimes the route to this blog comes via another education website, Twitter, or via a comment I’ve left on another’s blog.
However, recently, it seems that a semi-recent post has drawn a lot of traffic via search terms — my post on James K. Polk and his affinity (or at least what I’d led to believe based on the recipe I used from a colleague’s cookbook) for corn pone.
Here’s the evidence:
Judging from this scrap of evidence, it seems that somewhere students (or perhaps the preternaturally curious) are actively researching what Presidents of the United States liked to eat. So, what, if anything, is troublesome about this? Well, if I’m right in my assumption that these queries originated in some school project, then I fear that my website and post has become the terminus of many students’ research.
If I’m lucky then the students are actually citing this work and including it in some type of references list (on second thought, that might actually make me unlucky, given that my name would then be showing up in a bibliography and earning me the opprobrium of the being the peddler of this unsubstantiated claim). If I’m unlucky, students are simply including this information without ever having put in any thought to where it came from, the reason it was authored, or the tone in which it was written. Either way, it doesn’t seem good.
Ultimately, it seems that this observation has again brought me to thinking about how students do research, evaluate information, and encounter the perils of Google’s supreme searching powers. Now, this isn’t a blanket condemnation of using Google as a search tool, as I frequently rely on it myself when doing research as a way to find contextual facts, background information, and the like that helps an argument. However, I’d also like to think that I’ve developed a pretty good sense of how to evaluate information based on its provenance, perspective, context, and so on.
So, how can we help students be more aware of the information they’re encountering. As I strive to emphasize throughout the year to my students, the information external to the text is often as important, if not more important, than the text itself. It is this external information — much of which is often tacit — that students must become aware of and learn how to dovetail that information with the content they’re gleaning. If nothing else, this event (which I’ll now dub “The Great Corn Pone Research Quagmire of 2010”) reminds me of how easy it is to access “facts” and “evidence” online, making it all the imperative to teach students research and source evaluation and literacy skills.
Moreover, this discovery is also a reminder of how important assignment design is in facilitating the development of these skills for students. Report-style questions that merely require searching out factual information and regurgitating it encourage this type of lazy, uncritical research (and often plagiarism). Therefore, as teachers we must constantly seek to find ways to frame questions and design assignments that will push students to synthesize information in new ways and use the facts they find to convey some new perspective of their own.