The Role of Research in the Digital Age
We all know that the Internet has led to an explosion of available information. When students search for information about a topic, they are met with a plethora of articles, from both credible and non-credible resources. The skill of research has always been considered to be a pillar of the social studies discipline, though the nature of research itself has been rapidly changing as the Internet develops and our society becomes less dependant on paper-bound books. As social studies teachers, it is our job to be cognizant of how these changes are having an impact on our discipline.
Gone are the days of consulting the ever-trustworthy Encyclopedia Britannica; there used to be an inherent trust we could have that the information we found was the most relevant to our query, was presented in a (relatively) unbiased way, and was accurate. Now, finding the information is only a small fraction of the challenge of research. Students must now discern if the source they found contains accurate, factual, and documented information. Once they have done that, they must determine what the purpose of their source is, and whether or not it is presenting the information in a significantly skewed manner. This skill set is commonly found as part of university-level history curriculum, but now students as young as 4th grade need to begin developing this proficiency.
The Value of a Website
After receiving too many research papers that relied solely on Wikipedia, we realized that these skills needed to be explicitly taught, and that they needed to be developed in our social studies class. When looking for previously published curricula about Internet skills, we found Common Sense Media's Test Before You Trust materials, which were exactly what we were looking for. They guide students through asking tough questions about each source: Is the bias readily apparent? Who paid for the website? How many sources are cited for their information? Thanks to this material, students can at least ask the right questions about the online source.
In order to have the skills to evaluate a source found on the Internet, we need to not only teach tools to do this --like those found in Common Sense Media's Test Before You Trust materials-- but we need to teach how to evaluate the perspective of the sources students read, and to students even younger than before. In other words: we need to teach about bias.
Obviously, before the advent of the Internet, historians wrote from particular perspectives. The perspective of the author of a primary source was written from the perspective of personal experience. The letters of Abigail Adams reflect her perspective on politics, women's rights, and slavery in a different way from the writings of Thomas Jefferson. Throughout history, historians have looked at events through the lens of their own biases-- their writings are colored by their politics, culture, and experience. Also, the availability of certain information to those historians limited what they could and couldn't write about. It wasn't as often though, when we were in middle school, that students encountered a secondary source or tertiary source beyond the encyclopedia--so teaching about bias wasn't as necessary.
Instead now, secondary and tertiary sources on the Internet can be found by anyone and written by anyone--evaluating the bias of the source plays an important part in evaluating whether the site is useful. Since the Internet is not peer reviewed like academic journals, students are going to have to do the evaluation themselves. We teach our history students to evaluate bias by reading two different sources writing from different perspectives on the same historical event. Students find the details in the text that help shed light on what a source's perspective is. Students find telling adjectives, figure out what information is included, what is omitted. Everything is data.
Analysis and Evaluation in Social Studies Research
The tools used for detecting the bias of a source, and the critical thinking skills they require, must become part of social studies curriculum, and earlier now than ever before. However, critical thinking skills of evaluation and analysis that are required to detect bias aren't necessarily developed until students reach the formative operations stage described by Piaget. While the seeds of perspective analysis need to be planted early, some students may not yet be developmentally ready for learning how to discern on their own. To assist them, there are tools to help sort through the vast amount of resources available. For example, search engines like SweetSearch only display results appropriate for students (though that doesn't mean the sites they find are without bias).
Today, people are not necessarily considered knowledgeable based on how much information they know, but by how much facility they have with that information. As teachers in the discipline of history we have to own the idea that teaching students how to analyze and evaluate the information they find is more important than gathering that information together in one place. We ask our students to research, but it is not simply about finding information anymore. Students will need to sift through multiple perspectives on the Internet, and ultimately decide which perspectives are valuable and useful for their purpose. As social studies teachers, we have to show them HOW to research.