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In an Age of Information, Let's Teach Students Better Research Skills

We're in the car driving home, and my fourteen year old son and his best friend are in the back seat, engaged in their usual sports banter. "Did you know Jake Peavy is legally blind?" my son asks his friend, Henry. "What?" says Henry. "A pitcher can't be blind! You're making that up."

But my son is insistent. "No," he says. "He is legally blind. I'm not making it up." He pulls out his phone and types "Jake Peavy blind" into the search bar and starts reading an ESPN article aloud. Henry laughs and asks, "What the heck does that even mean? I mean, can you be illegally blind?" Another quick search and they are both hovering over the device, reading the definition of "legally blind."

These two boys, along with most every other kid across the country, are growing up with search engines in their back pockets, integrating research into their day-to-day conversations, proving their points and investigating where they are more curious. But this is not just a generational thing--we are all living this lifestyle.  With all-the-time digital access to news, sports, weather, and entertainment, we have evolved, seemingly overnight, into a research culture, where answers to our questions are literally at our fingertips. Daily conversations with family, friends, and colleagues often result in looking up information or pulling up previously read articles as reference. Even our youngest students know they can look information up when they need or want it. While our plugged-in habits come with a certain level of concern, they also make our reality extremely exciting: we are standing in the moment when research has become a way of life.

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The research nerd in me loves this! But like most things wonderful, our research-drenched culture does come with some grave, possible dangers. Our students are living in a world where politicians scream, "Fake news!" at reports they don't like; foreign governments create actual fake news that bounces off the walls and gains momentum in our echo chambers; and much journalism seamlessly blends the genres of reporting and commenting. If our students do not learn how to assess the information they read for credibility, question an author's motive, or synthesize what they read, we are at risk of breeding ignorance in an uninformed populace.

This gift of research at our fingertips could be instrumental in the progression of creative, innovative thinking, catapulting us into a future of critical thinking, or it could be our greatest downfall, plunging us into a realm of irresponsibility. Teaching students how to research today is no longer about academia. It's an act of citizenship.

This blog post is an abridged excerpt from Miller's new book, It's a Matter of Fact: Teaching Students Research Skills in Today's Information-Packed World, available from Routledge Publishing.

Angie Miller is a 7-12 English teacher and school librarian in Meredith, NH who is currently teaching abroad in Costa Rica. The 2011 NH Teacher of the Year and the recipient of the 2017 NH Outstanding Library Program of the Year, Angie is a TED speaker, National Geographic teacher fellow, and freelance writer who writes for her blog, and is a regular contributor to sites like EdWeek, Education Post, Knowledge Quest, and the Washington Post's Answer Sheet. Angie leads professional development for teachers around the country, speaking to audiences, and advocating for fundamental teacher leadership through. Her book, It's A Matter of Fact: Teaching Students Research Skills in Today's Information-Packed World, published by Routledge, is now on shelves and addresses the importance of information literacy in today's media-drenched world.

Image courtesy of Angie Miller.

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