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Research in the Digital Age: It’s More Than Finding Information…

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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The Role of Research in the Digital Age

We all know that the Internet has led to an explosion of available information. When students search for information about a topic, they are met with a plethora of articles, from both credible and non-credible resources. The skill of research has always been considered to be a pillar of the social studies discipline, though the nature of research itself has been rapidly changing as the Internet develops and our society becomes less dependant on paper-bound books. As social studies teachers, it is our job to be cognizant of how these changes are having an impact on our discipline.

The Encyclopedia

Gone are the days of consulting the ever-trustworthy Encyclopedia Britannica; there used to be an inherent trust we could have that the information we found was the most relevant to our query, was presented in a (relatively) unbiased way, and was accurate. Now, finding the information is only a small fraction of the challenge of research. Students must now discern if the source they found contains accurate, factual, and documented information. Once they have done that, they must determine what the purpose of their source is, and whether or not it is presenting the information in a significantly skewed manner. This skill set is commonly found as part of university-level history curriculum, but now students as young as 4th grade need to begin developing this proficiency.

The Value of a Website

After receiving too many research papers that relied solely on Wikipedia, we realized that these skills needed to be explicitly taught, and that they needed to be developed in our social studies class. When looking for previously published curricula about Internet skills, we found Common Sense Media’s Test Before You Trust materials, which were exactly what we were looking for. They guide students through asking tough questions about each source: Is the bias readily apparent? Who paid for the website? How many sources are cited for their information? Thanks to this material, students can at least ask the right questions about the online source.

In order to have the skills to evaluate a source found on the Internet, we need to not only teach tools to do this –like those found in Common Sense Media’s Test Before You Trust materials– but we need to teach how to evaluate the perspective of the sources students read, and to students even younger than before. In other words: we need to teach about bias.


Obviously, before the advent of the Internet, historians wrote from particular perspectives. The perspective of the author of a primary source was written from the perspective of  personal experience. The letters of Abigail Adams reflect her perspective on politics, women’s  rights, and slavery in a different way from the writings of Thomas Jefferson.  Throughout history, historians have looked at events through the lens of their own biases– their writings are colored by their politics, culture, and experience. Also, the availability of certain information to those historians limited what they could and couldn’t write about.  It wasn’t as often though, when we were in middle school, that students encountered a secondary source or tertiary source beyond the encyclopedia–so teaching about bias wasn’t as necessary.

Instead now, secondary and tertiary sources on the Internet can be found by anyone and written by anyone–evaluating the bias of the source plays an important part in evaluating whether the site is useful. Since the Internet is not peer reviewed like academic journals, students are going to have to do the evaluation themselves. We teach our history students to evaluate bias by reading two different sources writing from different perspectives on the same historical event. Students find the details in the text that help shed light on what a source’s perspective is. Students find telling adjectives, figure out what information is included, what is omitted. Everything is data.

Analysis and Evaluation in Social Studies Research

The tools used for detecting the bias of a source, and the critical thinking skills they require, must become part of social studies curriculum, and earlier now than ever before. However,  critical thinking skills of evaluation and analysis that are required to detect bias aren’t necessarily developed until students reach the formative operations stage described by Piaget. While the seeds of perspective analysis need to be planted early, some students may not yet be developmentally ready for learning how to discern on their own. To assist them, there are tools to help sort through the vast amount of resources available. For example, search engines like SweetSearch only display results appropriate for students (though that doesn’t mean the sites they find are without bias).

Today, people are not necessarily considered knowledgeable based on how much information they know, but by how much facility they have with that information. As teachers in the discipline of history we have to own the idea that teaching students how to analyze and evaluate the information they find is more important than gathering that information together in one place. We ask our students to research, but it is not simply about finding information anymore. Students will need to sift through multiple perspectives on the Internet, and ultimately decide which perspectives are valuable and useful for their purpose. As social studies teachers, we have to show them HOW to research.


About the Author:

Jody Passanisi is in her tenth year teaching and currently teaches eighth grade U.S. at an independent school in the Los Angeles area. She has a degree in psychology from San Francisco State University, an M.A. in religious studies from the Graduate Theological Union, and an M.S. in education from Mount St. Mary's College. She has been actively involved in the DeLeT program at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, both as a fellow and a mentor teacher.

Shara Peters is in her fourth year teaching and currently teaches middle school at an independent school in the Orange County, CA area. She has a degree in Jewish studies from California State University, Long Beach, was a fellow in the DeLeT program at Hebrew Union College where she received her teaching credential, and earned an M.A.T from American Jewish University. Jody and Shara’s writing has been featured on Scientific American, Education Week Teacher, and MiddleWeb. Follow on Twitter @21centuryteachr.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Jimlab 5:42 pm 05/5/2013

    Sitting at a table in Segas, Spain, at one of the many alcoves situated half outside and half under the stairway of the hotel, before morning in a country where no one would sit outside before the sun had risen.
    I fiddled with my bulky phone, making sure it was ready. We had survived 2000, but communication was still tentative, at least from my perspective.

    In the dark, an orange tint from light bending across the atmosphere preluding the entrance of the sun. As the sun rose, the quite was broken by the sounds of seagulls below, beginning their celebration, squawking at each other, fighting, complaining. The call was late; maybe it wasn’t going to happen.

    I opened the book I had brought with me. It had a white cover that matched the table, the chairs, and the walls of the Spanish hotel; everything was white with new paint. Looking back over a decade later, the book was memorable only as much as it was white as the walls
    around me, and because almost every time I opened a search engine, I remembered of one of the characters in the book. He was an internet researcher for hire.

    It was an intriguing time. The Internet had not permeated our lives yet. Business had started to take over the electronic bulletin boards, and the rules and algorithms behind search engines were just starting to become apparent.

    But this was a futuristic story about a data base expert, a hired gun, someone who could find anything. The character began typing, but then began navigating data as if it was a flight simulator program, sweeping down each side of seamingly endless stacks of data, touching down momentarily to pick up packets of information, able to find and link data, uncover information that others could not hope to discover, and delve into the dense overgrowth of historical, archived data, then fly back to reality with the cache of data as the only evidence of the fanciful adventure.

    Even though at some level, the vision bears some semblance of the actual data organization, which is why the fiction captures the imagination, that’s not how it works. Unfortunately, researching data has less to do with adventure and more to do with evaluating what is and is not useful information.

    There is a concern that bias may not be discerned by fourth graders and needs to be taught. But it may be even more difficult for adults to recognize bias as over time our life experiences accumulate, as the views of family and friends are considered, digested, consolidated, and eventually collated into our individuality. By the tine we are adults, bias has become subjective so long that we are able to convince ourselves that our views are objective. As adults, we can help fourth graders navigate though the complexities of bias.

    Many adults are able to identify bias in the news media, in “Hollywood”, and of course, our educational system. From each person’s view on how we should bring up baby, to our views on the last Presidential election, to how we dispose of our bodies after death; everyone has their own perspective.

    Imprecision and bias important considerations are what we use to determine how much variation in a result is acceptable. Generally speaking, bias is the measurement of the distance of a result from a central point of reference. In the lab, we call that point the “gold standard”. Sometimes we argue the point. Was the original standard measured on instrumentation no longer used? Should the standard be the measurements taken from today’s improved technology. Most of the time we set bias to zero, otherwise the calculations get complicated and we just argue about it. It’s easy in the lab, when we measure bias, that central point that we use to compare a result must be accepted as as being accurate; this is what we call traceability.

    When it comes to measuring bias outside of the laboratory, measurements become less certain. The tools we have at our disposal to measure bias come from the accumulated experiences that make each of us distinct individuals; that is our “gold standard” and our perceptions are the tools we use to measure bias. While we cherish our individuality, but when we are evaluating bias, Observer Effect can play havoc on our attempts to identify bias.

    Even if you and I agree on the unbiased nature of a depiction of some historical event, as we begin to think, discuss, argue the consequences of the event, it changes. On the one hand, we believe that this establishment of a single standard of objectivity, free if bias, will create an unmoving foundation from which to build a set of criteria to measure bias. It may, but only for a moment.

    Religion is one of the best examples of creating an unwavering set of beliefs from which to measure others’ bias. But over time from a single foundation of an idea, splinter groups, disagreements so vehement that they lead to war, demonstrate that nothing is immune to the effects of entropy.

    So, our agreement on the historical event as our standard has created endless disagreements about events surrounding our new standard. If we tire of arguing about the peripheral events surrounding our historical standard, we might just agree to disagree and adjust what we both agree is a new standard, which in turn generates other disagreements regarding bias. So, like the Uncertainty Principle, we really cannot create a single standard from which to measure bias without generating even more disagreement, or uncertainty.

    If my fear is that my fourth grader, in her research of an important historic event in the past, will read an account or interpretation of the event that may be biased, from what central point am I measuring the distance that determine’s bias. most likely, it’s that it will be too far from my own stake in the ground, my center, the tool that I use to measure all other bias.

    So we all agree to disagree. But what happened to our hero in his flight simulator that swept over databases, collecting, collating, and delivering the cache of unique, valuable facts? A decade ago, it became a search engine. No longer did we have to spend the day, or days, or weeks, in the university library, painstakingly seeking articles, making copies, reviewing references that would serve to elucidate an argument we weren’t yet sure of yet, hoping the next citation might contribute to building a starting point of an idea, a new, unique center point.

    Librarian were not unlike the search engines of today. With varying degrees of success, they try to help you find the information you were seeking. By understanding what you were looking for, the librarian recognized others like yourself, who were browsing the bookshelves in that same general area. If the Librarian was able to help find what you were looking for, the Librarian would know what to look for the next time someone came looking for that topic.

    The problem is that the librarian knows where people like you will usually find the information they need. However, we research to find the new central idea, the new perspective on something that will help clarify understanding, a more accurate depiction of an idea. the librarian knows what we know collectively, search engines aim toward the same center point, but it is not likely that is where your research will find the new, unique center point.

    So my concern is not bias or imprecision; it is who we are. Leading ourselves, guiding and being guided by the collective users of search engines, to what we all find important, is a greater concern. It is the search engine as a research tool increasingly attempting to anticipate what our needs, and presenting the most popular search result. It is this loss of imprecision, why we try and avoid marrying our cousins, why we know there’s a problem in the laboratory when every patient’s result is the same.

    What frustrates me is the a search engine is that attempts to provide me with what I’m already looking for, and doesn’t makes it easy to find diversity among the captured data. That flight simulator has become efficient, data mining the same places, delivering what we want. Teaching how to close the breadth of ideas and discovery is what I worry about, not bias.

    Jim Pearce

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  2. 2. pbuysman 10:33 am 05/7/2013

    I love your article because it emphasizes the need to teach students the importance of knowing how to research. I’m a bit troubled, however, because you never once mention the person in the school who could provide the help and expertise Social Studies teachers might need to do this. What about the teacher librarian? They are the resident experts in the school that know all about information literacy! Use them to help!

    Link to this
  3. 3. pbuysman 10:33 am 05/7/2013

    I love your article because it emphasizes the need to teach students the importance of knowing how to research. I’m a bit troubled, however, because you never once mention the person in the school who could provide the help and expertise Social Studies teachers might need to do this. What about the teacher librarian? They are the resident experts in the school that know all about information literacy! Use them to help!

    Link to this
  4. 4. 21centuryteachr 6:20 pm 05/7/2013

    Great point. School libraries and librarians can be great resource for teachers–especially when they join forces and help teachers and students with platforms to research content.

    Link to this
  5. 5. BarendT 11:54 pm 05/7/2013

    An interesting and timely article, thank you.
    I just feel the word “research,” while often used, is not the right one when we mean “search” for relevant information (especially on the web) and compile it in a report, since in the scientific sense research relates to generating new knowledge. In the old days we did a “literature search” to determine prior knowledge or the state of the art before the actual research could start. Even evaluating information for relevance is a skill rather than research. However, it may become closer to scientific research if it is about uncovering “the truth” or the biases among millions of “hits” on the internet. Maybe the “search” for answers should always include “research” and conclusions about the most valuable sources of information, the extent of agreement from different sources, or the risks of hasty compilation from the most popular websites that are influenced by search engines.

    Link to this

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