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The Art of Student-Centered Research

What is the difference between finding answers and researching?
I ask students this question often, both before they start a project and in the middle of a project as a way to refocus.
At first glance, the question might appear as a riddle of sorts. After all, doesn’t researching lead to the right answer? And just what is the ‘right answer,” anyway? Though finding and recognizing a correct answer to a specific question is a vital skill, researching a subject involves much more than only finding those fact-based answers.
At the heart of the question is this: researching puts the student at the center of the process. Searching for answers puts something or someone else at the center, and in our digital age that something else is typically Google. I teach students that sources are not inherently good or bad, and neither are search engines. Instead, different resources are merely appropriate or inappropriate for particular research needs. 
For example, the scholarly Science journals available through our paid library subscription might provide a student with the latest primary source studies in Marine Biology. On the other hand, Twitter and Facebook are exactly the place to go to find firsthand, immediate accounts of the Syrian uprising. Wikipedia, the crowd sourced, digital encyclopedia heralded by many as the epitome of a non-credible source, has its place in the exploratory process for many subjects. In fact, in the case of Computer Science, professionals and academics alike are archiving their latest research findings in Wikipedia entries.
As both an educator and a parent, I am reminded daily of how important it is to join our children in becoming savvy researchers who understand that we must seek information from a variety of sources that fit our immediate needs. Google appears to embody that variety in one easy tool—it comes to “know” us, it finds us information on anything, from anywhere, right? Unfortunately not, and it can be very challenging to disabuse our kids of this notion.
According to a 2012 Pew Research Study, 94 percent of teachers surveyed said their students were “very likely” to use Google as the top source of information for a research project. The next most likely sources? Wikipedia or other online encyclopedias, Youtube,  social media sites, and their peers.
Predictably, textbooks and print materials are making their way toward the bottom of teenagers’ preferred source list. But online databases (containing volumes of academic journals, news, and professional articles) are also falling behind. From our teenagers’ often-overwhelmed perspective, perceived convenience is the standard by which they judge the best research sources. The problem is, of course, purposeful lives are usually not convenient. Purposeful academic study, athletic participation, relationships, and careers involve steady trial and error, and so does finding information that helps us achieve these things.
At Pacific Ridge School, we want our students to grow into powerful learners who know how to research a topic and understand its significance in their lives, rather than simply hoping to find a pleasing answer. This means pitching the research process as one that is often hard work, yes, but is also doable and satisfying.
I have found through experience, and library science research bears this out, that guiding a student to develop his or her own research process is beneficial in the long run. Akin to SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Timely) goal-setting, finding a repeatable pattern of checkpoints along the way keeps that student moving forward despite the inevitable frustration of being required to find sources not available easily through a Google search. I teach kids to include in their process careful and repeated review of the assignment, self-checks to notice how focused they are on what they really need to find, skimming techniques, tools for searching in print and electronic formats, and so on.
With an established research method as a basis, students can more easily develop crucial research skills – from traditional skills such as navigating the Library of Congress Classification system to more modern skills including intelligent assessment of online sources. By working alongside classroom teachers to teach fundamental concepts like these, I am confident that Pacific Ridge graduates will have firm footing when college instructors require far-reaching research and understanding.

Ellen Cothran, Librarian and Media Specialist