Empowering Students for Life: Research Skills in the Age of Testing

Article excerpt

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Empowerment. Is that a term we think of when we think libraries? We should.

Because that's what libraries and school libraries have done for eons--empower learners to become independent and productive citizens.

In this age of easy access to Google, standardized testing, and AP curriculums, why should we teach research skills at all? Don't students "know everything" about research and the web?

Studies (and experience) show the contrary. Although we consider our students to be Digital Natives, their usage is somewhat different than we might assume--proficient in some areas but not in others. According to research done by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, while 73% of younger teens use social networking sites, only 14% write blogs; only 25% have downloaded podcasts; about 25% have uploaded videos; and about 50% have tagged content (Rainie, Lee, "Networked Learners," Pew Internet & American Life Project; www.pewinternet.org/Presentations/2009/52-Networked-Learners.aspx). [For more on what students know--and don't know--about using technology, see Mary Ann Bell's Belltones column from the January/February 2010 issue of Multimedia & Internet@Schools. It's available in the print issue or online at mmischools.com.--Ed.]

Why does this matter, and what does it have to do with our work with students? Chris Lehmann writes in Principal Leadership magazine (December 2009): "Those of us who work in education talk a lot about student engagement, but I don't think that goes far enough. Engagement is certainly better than boredom, but schools should set the bar for themselves ... much higher. What schools should strive for is student empowerment."

THE HEART OF THE MATTER

Lehmann's statement hits at the heart of why teaching research skills is important. Students have varying levels of proficiency with the internet, database research, and Web 2.0 tools. As we improve their research skill set and mindset, we help them become more independent of us. Knowing how to find and interpret information is a lifelong skill. Even though we can't anticipate the devices or methods our students will be using to find information 20 years from now, we are not just teaching about databases, or how to deal with privacy on Facebook, or how to use Google effectively. We are (or should be) teaching students how to think, evaluate, interpret, and question.

Why is this significant? We have to look at where our students will be going.

While preparing students for the workplace is not our only role, a brief glance at the corporate and governmental use of social networking lends some insights. According to Socialtext, 79% of Fortune 500 businesses maintain blogs (www.socialtext.net/bizblogs/index.cgi). On the Social Media Today site, Nancy Dixon explains how the Army has just started using social networking tools, including a newly minted wiki that allows soldiers in the field to update Army doctrine and training materials themselves (http://socialmediatoday.com/SMC/154158). Best Buy uses an employee-generated wiki to evaluate new products. Chevrolet created a college contest for Super Bowl advertisements in 2007, and Doritos has done the same.

The point is, when students enter the professional world, whether they are working for a Fortune 500 company or the military, utilizing research and evaluation skills to create products using Web 2.0 tools will be the name of the game. These uses are real, authentic, and crucial. It's clear that what our students need to know goes far beyond the state-mandated testing requirements or AP course content. The more user-created content there is, the more CNN "iReport" there is, the more we need future content creators to be empowered thinkers. As Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody, points out, we have an opportunity, by nurturing and empowering student thinking now, to create a user-driven internet that becomes a collegelike "communicative backbone of real intellectual and civic change" in the future, instead of a socially obsessed "high school" (Weblogged; http://weblogg-ed. …