Letting Go of Boolean Operators: Rethinking How Research Is Taught in Schools

By Sarah Ludwig |

I am constantly struggling with the sense that I’m doing a lot of talking for nothing. I painstakingly teach kids how to use a database and they go straight back to Wikipedia as soon as I turn them loose. I show them how to use keywords and operators and they always fall back on their “ask Google a question” method.

I get frustrated. I’ve considered asking their teachers to require the use of databases. But lately I’ve been admitting to myself the deep, dark truth: I’ve got it backwards. I’m forcing students to use tools and search methods that are more cumbersome, more frustrating, and less successful simply because I, the librarian, think it’s the best thing to do. If students are going to spend the rest of their lives searching for information in the easiest, most natural way, I must embrace that.

In order for students to see the benefit of using a tool that’s more complicated, they need to actually get better results. And that doesn’t always happen. Using databases is hard, and the results aren’t always great. Students don’t understand why some results are only citations, and they don’t understand why they need to spend 15 minutes crafting the perfect search string, complete with limiters, in order to pinpoint the most useful resources. Imagine doing all that work and then not finding anything; it usually ensures that a student will never ever use that tool again.

We’re librarians and, in theory, we excel at finding information. We also (or perhaps I should just speak for myself) do things the hard way. Sometimes because we believe it’s better in the long run. Or maybe because we even like spending those 15 minutes crafting the perfect search. But our students get their information instantly. It may not be the best, most reliable information, but it’s the answer they want. How can we ever compete with that? And should we? Why are we sending them to slog through web subject guides when they can go to Ask.com and get the answer in 10 seconds?

Obviously, it’s our job to teach students how to find the best information they can. But I think there is a better way.

We have to stop being afraid of Wikipedia. Some will see this as a no-brainer, but in my experience, many teachers and librarians still ban Wikipedia outright as a source. Wikipedia is a generally reliable source that needs to be evaluated by the reader just like any other. Wikipedia gives the reader clues by highlighting potential problems with the article, such as bias or a lack of citations. Most students’ eyes skip right over these flags, so librarians have to show them how to see them.

Use Wikipedia as the tool that it is: the citations are right there. Students already are using the site. So let them; and teach them what those citations are and how to use them. (Though students are often shocked to see that many of the citations listed are for books). Teach them how to see the revision history of an article, the discussion page, and the subject guides down at the bottom. All of these features are excellent research tools, and learning to use them will give students skills they will actually care about (which means they’ll reinforce them naturally).

If you must ban Wikipedia, then you should also ban Ask.com, Answers.com, About.com, thefamouspeople.com, and any other website that’s easy to find, full of facts, and short on citations. Wikipedia is better than any of those sources.

Let the kids and the project guide the process. I do interact with older students who are comfortable with, and even like, using databases. They get assignments that require primary sources or information about more esoteric topics. These students are often thrilled to discover that databases can provide the information they need, because they’re frustrated by Google searches that don’t work. There is a time and place to introduce databases, especially if your students are going to college. If you know your students, you will know when they are ready. And if you collaborate in planning with faculty or simply get advance notice on assignments, you should be able to identify when work calls for more sophisticated searching methods and tools.

Build presearch into the curriculum. Presearch, or pre-research, helps students identify subjects and terms that they will be able to easily research. Use a worksheet to have them identify keywords and then narrow and broaden these terms. Before students commit to a topic, ask them to peruse several websites, using these terms, to see how much information they’ll be able to find. This isn’t to say that research should be easy above all else, or that students should abandon interesting topics if they’re “too hard,” but that students should investigate and prepare search strategies before the real work of their research begins. Identifying keywords, especially, will make the search process much smoother later on. You can go even further by helping students articulate the types of sources they need, the acceptable currency of their resources, and more. Doing all this beforehand, rather than in the middle of the process, means that even if kids are using Google or Wikipedia, they’ll be doing it in a smart way.

We also need to be OK with searching in real language. This may run counter to my previous point about keywords, but let’s be honest: students are never going to stop using natural language to search. I do it! “How do I get magic marker out of microfiber” may have come up once or twice. Here’s the thing: if students can use real language to find the answer they’re looking for, then their research topic is too simple or a simple answer is what’s needed. For example, if need three bullet points on the causes of the Holocaust for a worksheet, I don’t think using the tools at hand is a problem. Teachers and librarians can’t expect students to do things the hard way on principle, can we? Again, this is where a librarian can help at the beginning of the process, by working with teachers on developing projects that require more than just quick facts. For example, research using primary source material can help students draw their own conclusions without paraphrasing the ideas of others.

Integrate the tools that actually do make things easier. I’ve come across tools that both make research more efficient for students and encourage quality work. I see them used daily during the school year.

  • Diigo Since using Diigo is as simple as clicking a button, it’s an easy sell to students. Plus, it’s an elegant solution to a universal problem, which is that students travel from school to home and need their collection of websites to be available in both places. Diigo not only allows students to access their favorite sites anywhere, but also enables resource sharing among students who are working in a group. Also, they can annotate and highlight web resources right on the screen. As a teacher, you can have access to your students’ link libraries, which allows you to see how they’re doing with their research before they turn in their works-cited page.
  • EasyBib EasyBib inspired this blog post. When I first became a school librarian, I scoffed at EasyBib. Why should I promote a website that makes it so simple to create citations that students don’t even have to learn when to use a colon and when to use a period? Now, thanks to some great school librarians modeling its use, I’ve totally come around. It’s not as important, necessarily, to memorize exactly where the commas and the periods go. EasyBib helps minimize the time spent teaching typographic conventions allowing more time to reinforce why we cite. More worthwhile for students is the opportunity to learn about the principles of copyright, fair use, and attribution.
  • LibGuides While I’m not convinced that using general subject guide websites, like the Internet Public Library, works well for students, I love LibGuides because it allows me, with the collaboration of the classroom teacher, to curate a collection of sources specifically tailored to a class or project. I also love that I can gather not only research sources but also links to EasyBib or help with the specific tools that students are using, like Glogster or VoiceThread. If you make these very easy to access and populate them with useful, age-appropriate resources, students will use them.

No matter how we choose to teach research, the key is remaining agile. We’ve got to be able to respond to our students’ needs instead of doggedly staying the course even when things aren’t working. Recognizing how students are seeking information and acknowledging what’s working for them is more important than the specific databases or websites we’re touting. It’s OK to let students search the way they want, because it’s more important to help them do a better job than it is to do the “proper” job. If we can incorporate students’ methods and habits into our teaching, we’ll become more relevant, and we’ll become even more trusted resources to them.