Education Opinion

Students Need to Learn How to Obtain Knowledge: Part II

By Matthew Lynch — November 07, 2016 5 min read

In Part I of this series, I discussed why students need to be taught how to obtain knowledge. In Part II, I will discuss how we can educate our learners about how to obtain the BEST knowledge from the pool of available options. This process of finding information should vary from school to school to adjust to the populations using it but should contain these features:

  • An online vetting process. How can students know if what they are reading is reliable? This starts by considering the source through a short list of trustworthy websites and publications. Government publications, large trusted nonprofit names, and some newspapers should make this list. Since some editorial content is now going the way of paid content, otherwise known as native advertising, sites with interest in making money (including some “news” publications) should be examined with a close eye, too. As advertising online continues to evolve, so too should the way we examine the content we consume - and students should be a part of that process. Students should know how to spot unbiased, reliable information and separate from misleading content. That skill starts with vetting the source and looking for clues in the content that point to reliability, instead of simply taking what is presented at face value.
  • Instruction in the basics. I’m not going to take this moment to bemoan the decline of brick-and-mortar library necessity. It is what it is. While needing the actual books on the shelves may be on its way out, the information housed in our school, university, and public libraries is still an incredibly important cornerstone of learning, particularly when students are searching for information. Our students should know what the difference is between a Wikipedia page online and a peer-reviewed article on the same topic. They should understand reference books and where to find the information contained within them, whether that is still a physical library shelf or a specific website. In other words, when our students are at the beginning stages of researching something they should not start with a Google search; they should go a little deeper to find the best sources on any topic and teachers should instruct them on how to do it.
  • Investigating multiple sources. The instant gratification of the internet has provided a shortcut for today’s students when it comes to research and obtaining knowledge. Answers are quite literally right at the tips of their fingers and easy to insert in any assignment. Students should question what they read, however, even if the sources seem reliable. A benefit of the internet is that there is more than one side to every story, which means that today’s students should be handing in well-rounded work that contains more than one piece of info. Even the “facts” surrounding our Founding Fathers and other pieces of American history are scrutinized more closely, in part because of the vast reach of the internet, and students should be encouraged to seek out more than one avenue when it comes to the learning process and should use that information to formulate a well-rounded response to any assignment.
  • An understanding of internet-related ethics. Today’s students do not need to write answers on the insides of their hands or pay another student to write their research papers to cheat academically. In many cases, all they need is a cell phone, a search engine and sometimes a credit card. With so much information available at the touch of a button, student understanding of what is cheating, what is shady and what is perfectly acceptable when it comes to finding answers is a little bit murky. A Common Sense Media survey discovered that at least 35 percent of the student had cheated on assignments via cell phone - though many of those respondents were unaware that what they had done was ethically questionable. Some ways that students cheat to find their answers include texting answers to other students, storing notes on their cell phones, rewriting information found online that requires no further research, using virtual assistant programs to find answers and flat-out paying online companies to write papers or complete assignments for them. In a lot of cases, it may not even occur to the students that they are doing anything unethical. To them, they are just finding the answers to the questions presented in the most efficient way. This reliance on the quickest, most accessible information is dangerous to the academic futures of K-12 students, and educators should fight against it through policy, discussion and yes, assessments. This requires, in essence, students unlearning the information gathering tactics that they have built in from birth.

But then how do we assess this information gathering process? It is one thing for teachers to align their lesson plans with these methods, but it is another thing to be able to tell which students have mastered them. I would suggest a separate assessment that focuses solely on the process of information seeking - whether it is in included in assessments that are already written, or given as a test at certain benchmarks in the K-12 career.

As it stands now, 4th and 8th grade seem to be popular time frames for other assessments, but I’d suggest mid-way through the elementary career (say 3rd grade) and then again at the end (6th). Then again after 9th grade and in the second semester of 12th. The very best way to test these skill sets is by having individually written tests per school, per district, or at the very least per state. These tests should not be sent off to a large-scale scoring publisher but should be graded individually by each teacher. Adding another requirement to a teacher’s agenda may come with its set of groans, but I’d argue that these information skills are so integral to creating lifelong learners who can think for themselves that this needs to be part of the assessment process.

Instead of an actual “test,” these skills could also be assessed in the way of a class project. Research papers and other long-term projects are certainly not new to a teacher’s agenda, but the “assessment” side of this information gathering would have specific requirements for the intended outcomes, listed above. Guiding the way our students obtain knowledge will impact every other fact or piece of knowledge and needs to be a required piece of K-12 learning - and then tested.

The opinions expressed in Education Futures: Emerging Trends in K-12 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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