I recently argued that we should add a new Habit Of Mind – Thinking Digitally to our armoury: to help us think critically about how we navigate the new cognitive technologies. When I was a boy, I remember being taught explicitly how to navigate a book to extract the information I needed. We were shown how to use the table of contents, the index page, the title page, the blurb. These were skills which stood me in great stead over the years.
In many schools students are taught explicitly how to use search engines and online databases effectively, but, as one of those teachers myself, I don’t believe we are going anywhere nearly far enough to equip our students with good critical skills for finding and evaluating digital information. It is all a bit hit and miss.
When students Google something they may or may not get the results they are seeking. If they find information straight away, that is well and good. Search engines are becoming more and more intuitive, and are better than they used to be at getting around a sloppy query. But students need effective strategies for when they are not getting the results they need. In the course I run for my grade 8s, I teach them how to use quotation marks, plus and minus signs to refine their searches and generally think about what’s wrong with the results they are getting so they can refine the search accurately. But it is not enough. It’s a single session which gets lost in the day-to-day confusion of lessons. As a key cognitive strategy, it’s something we need to be foregrounding far more than we are. We need, in short a better strategy for teaching students to find information in a digital world.
When I floated the idea of Thinking Digitally as a new Habit Of Mind, one of my motivations was to move the whole question of how we use cognitive technologies centre stage, so that teachers across a range of disciplines, and not just the one responsible for teaching digital or information literacy would begin to see it as central to critical thinking practices within their subject specialization. Finding information in Maths presumably looks different to finding it in English, for example, and may well involve different tools and approaches.
There is, however, a common algorithm, and the beginnings of a common strategy. All memorable strategies need a good acronym. I call the framework TASER.
- Tools: The first step is choosing the right tool for the job. Some questions need different search engines or databases. Wolfram Alpha is great for some uses, but Google will trump in other circumstances, while only Google Scholar alerts may be best for some purposes. Students need to know about a range of search engines, databases and search tools they can use within documents. Teachers cannot simply ask students to Google their research. They need to scaffold this process carefully and thoroughly.
- Analyse: Students need to be taught how to analyse the question so that what they are looking for will actually help them answer the question.
- Search: Students need to know how to refine their searches, to search online and within documents and their own devices! This also needs to be carefully scaffolded. Most of us learned the hard way! There are numerous tips and tricks that students can be taught. For example if you type -merchant in Google it will remove the obvious advertisements. That alone can help refine a search significantly.
- Evaluate: Students need to be able to evaluate the veracity and appropriateness of the information. How can you trust the information on the site you’ve stumbled across? There are a number of CRAP Detection strategies which can be used, but again, they need to be taught. You cannot expect students simply to do it. We live in a world where information comes at us at such a rate we cannot possible evaluate everything. It needs to be a conscious act, with conscious strategies. Teachers need to guide students through it. Only subject teachers can really do this because so much depends on our sense of what fits and what doesn’t fit into our knowledge schemas.
- Research: Students also need research skills. How do you take notes? How do you bookmark effectively, how do you capture citation information? All of these are important skills in terms of organising the information you have found so you can use it effectively without cut and paste plagiarism. And again teachers need to actively teach these skills. They don’t happen by accident!
Of course this is simply a skeleton framework for developing strategies for effective use of digital media and cognitive technologies for research purposes. But it needs to be taken out of the Information Literacy class and embedded in every classroom, or it will be ineffective, which is where I think we are at the moment.