25 January 2008

Learning to Research vs. Learning to Think

Lots of interesting news today – the creation of so-called artificial life by the J. Craig Venter Institute, and an opinion piece in the Globe about research skills in the age of Google. And to me, (wouldn’t you know) the issues have an interesting, but complex, connection. (The other interesting piece of news, namely, the controversy over Canada’s military policy with respect to detainee transfer in Afghanistan and the government’s denial regarding knowledge of systemic torture, will wait for the next post.)

Let’s start with the research skills item. The column reports on a study conducted by the British Library in collaboration with University College London that,
...spent years poring over its online resources' visitor logs to determine how young users were behaving. They discovered that – surprise, surprise – kids might not make the best researchers, even with a Google assist.

“Digital literacies and information literacies do not go hand in hand,” the report says. “A careful look at the literature over the past 25 years finds no improvement (or deterioration) in young people's information skills.
In fact, the study (and the column’s author) conclude that new technology doesn’t turn us all into information-seeking mavens, tacitly suggesting, as one would expect, that there is still an important role for libraries and people who are information-seeking mavens, namely, librarians.

There’s an old adage: seek and ye shall find. In the research game, this often means, ye shall find that which ye seek. Even those with admirable and well-honed research skills like those who conducted the study on behalf of the British Library and University College missed the larger context within which this question of understanding the world makes sense. An education system that teaches today's youth (and taught yesteryear's youth, as well) that finding a "right answer" and moving on to the next question is entirely culpable in fostering poor research and contextualizing skills, even among otherwise capable, professional researchers.

When history, for example, is taught as a collection of "right answers" set in a frame of winners and losers, when quantitative and post-positivist qualitative methods are overwhelmingly favoured among scholarly journals and policy makers alike, when the limitations of the scientific method are ignored, students are systemically trained that the world can be explained in a relatively straight-forward, deterministically causal manner, and that the name of the game is to efficiently find that answer. In an ironically reflexive way, there is little wonder that each new technology is embraced as a type of ultimate knowledge machine.

What the education system does relatively poorly is to train the critical thinking skills necessary to do proper and complete research. And for those who might jump to the conclusion that I'm anti-science, check out the John Ioannidis article from 2005 called “Contradicted and initially stronger effects in highly cited clinical research” in the Journal of the American Medical Association (vol. 294, no. 2, pp. 218-228), or his companion article in Public Library of Science - Medicine called, ”Why most published research findings are false.” You might also want to have a look at my article, How do we know: the changing culture of knowledge. And speaking about critical, when will the education system begin to teach an introduction to critical theory - issues of voice, power, marginality, inclusion and exclusion? With all of these as base preparation, then having instant access to a wealth of information online becomes truly useful.

Which brings us to the growing debate over the creation of the artificial bacterium, m. genitalium (which sounds like a South Park punch line if there ever was one). There will undoubtedly be much sturm und drang over the ethicality of creating life, and the potential for terrorist use, counterbalanced by its potential for (finally!) creating utopia and solving all of the world’s problems (notably in the current reportage, cast as a replacement for fossil fuels and a cure for global warming). Notice how this is set up as a debate between two polarities, rather than as a more reasoned examination and understanding of contexts. One answer will have to be right (so that the other one is wrong) – we just have to find the right answer, and then we can move on to the next question, just like we’ve all been trained to do.

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Leigh said...

"What the education system does relatively poorly is to train the critical thinking skills necessary to do proper and complete research."

Right on brother. I find it fascinating that people think the network on it's own is going to be teaching people critical thinking skills. If anything, those skills are becoming even more important (due to the complexity of the ever increasing media consumptive world we live in) and even less likely (due to our ability to have an vast knowledge bank of completely shallow information).

Side note: the link to your paper gave an error....

Tony Ward said...

Well said!

Kia ora from New Zealand,

I just found you through my Google Alerts for Critical Theory and Critical Pedagogy. I couldn't agree more about the fail;ure of the education system. I think that you may enjoy my own website – which you are free to use as a resource. I am a retired academic with more than 40 years teaching Architecture at Universities on three continents (the UK, U. C. Berkeley and U. of Auckland, New Zealand). I have a PhD in Architecture – specialising in the interface between design education and critical theory/critical pedagogy – but my writings cover a whole range of fields. I have a distinguished teaching Award from the University of Auckland (where I taught for 20 years), and for the last five years served as Director of Academic Programme Development at Te Whare Wananga o Awanuiarangi, (one of three Maori Universities) in New Zealand where I also taught Critical Education Theory and Cultural Studies. This gave me a unique perspective on issues of Colonisation, Education and Cultural Pluralism and Critical Pedagogy. I retired a year ago and have set up the website as an educational resource. I am writing because I thought you might find my own website useful. It covers issues such as:

Critical Theory
Critical Theorists
Critical Practice (Praxis)
Critical Pedagogy
Critical Education Theory
Indigenous Studies
Critical Psychology
Cultural Studies
Critical Aesthetics
Academic Programme Development
Sustainable Design
Critical Design etc. etc.

The website at: www.TonyWardEdu.com contains more than 60 (absolutely free) downloadable and fully illustrated PDFs on all of these topics and more offered to students from the primer level, up to PhD. It also has a set of extensive bibliographies and related web links in all of these areas.

I would be very grateful if you would have a look at the website and perhaps bring it to the attention of your friends and colleagues for them to use as a resource.

There is no catch!

It’s just that I believe the world is going to hell at an unimaginable rate and I want to do something to help to turn it around – for my five children and my grandchildren All that I ask in return, is that you and they let me know what you think about the website and cite me for any material that may be downloaded and/or used.

I would also appreciate a reciprocal link to my site from your own so that others may come to know about it and use it.

Many thanks and good luck

Dr. Tony Ward Dip.Arch. (Birm)
Academic Programme, Tertiary Education and Sustainable Design Consultant

(Ph) (07) 307 2245
(m) 027 22 66 563
(e) tonyward.transform@xtra.co.nz